Permission was obtained from Screening for Mental Health, Inc. to use this information for parent and family resource purposes.
Watching a child head to college for the first time is difficult, to say the least. Many parents struggle with the challenges of giving a child the freedom to make decisions independently, while also continuing to provide support and guidance for the many issues kids face at school. When the issues stray beyond the typical roommate skirmishes and academic difficulties, the distinction between interference and active support may seem unclear to parents. The following information outlines steps to help parents maintain an active role in a child's college experience, help recognize signs of trouble or distress in a child, and provide support and resources for a child even with a great distance between them.
Maximize and Support Your Child's College Experience
Be aware of the stresses your child faces. Most students identify health or emotional factors as issues that impede academic success. However, it is still important to talk to your child about his/her specific concerns.
Model Strong Communication Skills. Model the communication skills that you want your child to learn. Accccording to the American College Health Association, 72.5 percent of students say that they get most of their health information from their parents. Use your conversations to strengthen your connections. Show that it is okay to talk about sensitive and emotional subjects, and that it is fine to disagree and be upset. You can always come back and continue the discussion later with no damage done.
Be honest about mental health in your own lives. Share your personal experiences and those of family and friends. Talk with empathy and understanding about the value of professional psychological help. Young adults today connect many psychological issues with shame and embarrassment; a simple word change can produce dramatic results by normalizing mental health issues.
Listen (and listen well). Learn to be an active listener. Don't finish your child's thoughts or interrupt with a quick solution. Let him/her finish his/her own sentences. Use nonberbal listening techniques - lean in, maintain good eye contact, smile as appropriate.
Talk, Don't Criticize. Avoid controlling words like must and ought. Have balanced, open conversations with your child. Present your views in non-critical ways in order to help them discover their own answers to life's challenges.
Communicate Regularly. Set up a regular time to talk while your child is away at school, for example every Sunday, to catch up on the week's events. Let your child know that they do not have to protect you from their problems. Make sure you communicate that you are available, even if you assume your child already knows this.
Agree to Disagree. At times you will simply not see eye to eye with your child. Accept this and instead try to reach a middle ground.
Take time outs. The issues you will discuss may be very tough at times. Acknowledge that you both might be too upset to talk at the moment, but then set up a specific time to revisit the issue and stick to it!
Encourage Problem-Solving Skills. Help your child think about how to approach a problem and get him/her to weigh the pros and cons of possible solutions. Let him/her come up with the options, and evaluate the consequences of each to decide which is best.
Know the Warning Signs. You should be aware of signs of distress. If you notice symptoms of the following problems, begin a dialogue with your child to initiate the process of support and help.
Symptoms of Depression
• Persistent sad or empty mood
• Loss of interest or pleasure in ordinary activities
• Changes in appetite or weight
• Insomnia or increased sleeping
• Restlessness or sluggishness
• Decreased energy or fatigue
• Difficulty concentrating or making decisions
• Feelings of guilt, hopelessness or worthlessness
• Recurrent thoughts of death (not just fear of dying), recurrent thoughts of suicide, or a suicide attempt
Symptoms of Bipolar Disorder
Symptoms of the "highs" or manic phase
• Extreme irritability and distractibility
• Excessive "high" or euphoric feelings
• Increased energy, activity, restlessness
• Racing thoughts
• Rapid speech
• Decreased need for sleep
• Unrealistic beliefs in one's abilities and powers
• Increased sexual drive
• Abuse of drugs or alcohol
• Reckless behavior such as spending sprees, rash decisions, or erratic driving
Symptoms of the "lows" of biopolar disorder are listed under symptoms of depression.
Symptoms of Suicidal Thinking
Talking about suicide and other specific changes in behaviors are often outright warning signs. Pay attention to these signs of potential suicide and take them seriously:
• Talk about suicide (killing one's self)
• Making comments about being hopless, helpless or worthless
• Withdrawing from friends and social activities
• Saying things like "It would be better if I wasn't here" or "Life isn't worth living"
• Taking unnecessary or lifethreatening risks
• Giving away articles of either personal or monetary value
• Losing interest in things one used to care about
• Visiting or calling people to say goodbye
• Getting affairs in order, tying up loose ends
Know Confidentiality Rules. The current rules of confidentiality in college counseling centers are quite stringent and clear. Unless students are in imminent danger of hurting themselves or others or are completely unable to take care of themselves, doctors and psychologists cannot share clinical information with anyone - parents or college officials - without permission from the student (assuming over 18).
This stresses the importance of having a strong open communication system with your child so that he/she will tell you personally when he/she needs help.
Crisis Action Plan
If your child calls you and needs emergency help, here are a few action steps to work through the situation:
• First, be calm and supportive of your child. Assure him/her that contacting you was the right thing to do.
• Get the facts of the situation. What exactly happened? When did it start? How are they feeling now?
• Acknowledge your own limitations as a parent, not an expert on mental illness.
• Decide whom to contact. If you feel your child is suicidal and fear for their safety, you may want to contact the local police to get your child to a hospital. Lesser, though still severe, situations may require immediate attention from campus counseling services.
• Arrange a meeting with a mental health care counselor for an assessment.
• Arrange for a return call from your child when he/she is safe and in the care of a responsible adult.
• Ask your child to give the counselor permission to speak to you.
• Identify the contact person.
• Monitor follow-up.
• Create a timeline to make decisions.
• Decide, as a group, the next steps to take.
• To provide continuous suport, keep in touch as least once a day. Try not to sound panicked.
Screening for Mental Health, Inc. ♦ Wellesley Hills, MA ♦ 781-239-0071 ♦ WWW.MentalHealthScreening.ORG
Here are some websites that you may find helpful. These links are provided for informational purposes only. The University of Sioux Falls is not responsible for the content or linked-sites of any non-USF web page.
College Parents of America: www.collegeparents.org
Alcohol, other drugs and college: www.edc.org/hec/pubs/parents.html
Parents and Loved Ones of Sexual Abuse and Rape Surviors: www.geocities.com/HotSprings/2656
The Parents Connection: www.edc.org/hec/parents information for parents on alcohol and other drug problems
National Resource Center for First-Year Experience and Students in Transition: www.sc.edu/fye/
Substance Abuse Services (in the area) www.carrollinstitute.org, www.keystonetreatment.com, www.helplinecenter.org, or http://www.averamckennan.org/amck/services/behavioralhealth/
National Institute of Mental Health
National Foundation for Depressive Illness
American Psychological Association Help Center
National Eating Disorders Association
C.H.A.D.D. (Child and Adults with Attention Deficit Disorder)