The College Freshman Crisis

...or What Parents Can Do During the Holiday Break To Tune in to Their Teen’s Emotional Needs and Prevent a Tragedy

Your teen spent months studying for those SATs, filling out college applications and agonizing. Then came the acceptance letter! So he moves into the dorm, you hug goodbye and drive away assuming that the stress is over and his new life has begun. Right?

(More students are leaving during the second semester of their first year. Parenting expert Michele Borba tells parents how they can help. Watch the video.)

Not according to the latest statistics from university counseling centers. Stress and pressure in teens has reached epidemic levels. In fact, the freshman year dropout rate has reached an all-time high at more than 26 percent (that’s one out of every four students). Plus, four out of ten students report feeling depressed to the point that it was difficult to function.

Depression, stress, and drop-outs peak during the second half of the first year. College counselors are aware of these troubling stats and are making changes on campuses to try to better meet kids’ emotional needs. Meanwhile, thousands of college students are home for the holidays, back to family and friends. And it’s over this holiday break when parents play a critical role in making sure that second semester goes smoother and safer.

Here are seven things you can do:


Look for signs of stress and depression.

Yes, you will see a change in your kid. He'll probably be a bit moody, lazy, sleepy or defiant. But when should you worry? Give things a couple of days to settle and then tune in to your teen’s daily behavior. Identify the behavior that concerns you (i.e. “moody”). Now apply the word “too.” Is he too moody for your instinct and for “too” long?
Red Flag: Whenever your child is demonstrating too much of a behavior that is not normal to him and it lasts longer than two weeks, get help. Whenever in doubt, go with your instinct.


Listen for descriptions of school experience.

Ask: “Would you recommend the school to other kids?” “If you had it to do all over again, would you apply to the same place?” If he doesn’t open up to you, ask a friend to ask. Does she seem happy? Is he adjusting? Does he have new friends? Is she involved in any activities at school? Or does he want to come home?
Red Flag: When you called he was never available (too much partying;not enough studying) or he was always in his room so he never formed connections. “No connections” is a big sign of adjustment problems and can lead to dropping out.


Listen to what your kid doesn’t say about grades.

What she doesn’t say can be revealing, so listen to her silence. Does she talk about her professors or how hard (or easy) the final was? Is he evasive when you ask how he’s doing? Don’t ask: “What grade did you get?” Reframe it: “Was it as hard as you thought it would be?”
Red Flag: If your teen says nothing about schoolwork, it may be a distress indicator.


Brainstorm possible solutions.

If your teen is overwhelmed or feels he might fail, then be clear that you’ll help find solutions Just one change can be enough to turn things around: Switch majors? Change dorms? Pledge a fraternity? Change roommates? Find a tutor? Get a counselor? Change schools? Take a semester off?
Red Flag: Overwhelmed kids don’t see options and come up with poor solutions.


Check on sleep patterns.

Any college kid will sleep in once they're home, but those who are depressed and overwhelmed usually get their first really restful sleep in their own beds. Ask: “So glad you’re getting a rest. Were you able to sleep at school?”
Red Flag: Sleep troubles are often the first signs of adjustment problems and depression.


Share your concerns.

If you suspect your teen is depressed, tell him: “I’m worried about you and think you might be depressed.” Print off the depression signs posted on his college website or at and show him. Make an appointment with a mental health professional. Do not wait.
Red Flag: A depressed teen often realizes something isn’t right, but doesn’t know what’s wrong. Often, the first to identify depression is a roommate or resident assistant.


Stay connected.

A teen’s biggest fear (and stressor) is not failing school, but failing his parents. So focus now on your teen’s emotional needs rather than his grades. Convey you love him no matter what. Just knowing that you're concerned takes tremendous weight off of a teen.
Red Flag: Many kids are struggling. They don’t tell us because they don't want to let us down. Then they go back second semester, only to drop out.

Take this time to not only celebrate the holidays and your child’s homecoming, but also to assess his adjustment and mental health. One out of ten college students will consider suicide. The highest rate of drop-outs occurs in the second semester. Take it seriously!

Dr. Michele Borba is the author of Nobody Likes Me, Everybody Hates Me: The Top 25 Friendship Problems and How to Solve Them.

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