When I was in college, there weren’t cell phones, which meant I had to find a payphone or a private place to call home and cry if I was sad. And I’d have to call when the long-distance rates were low (after 8pm). My parents didn’t know how much I was struggling. I kept most of my problems a secret.
Today? Parents get 24/7 updates on their kid’s emotions via texts, social media, and video calls. When you see your child crying or struggling, parents need a plan. How do you respond? What do you say? How can you help?
The following 5 rules for college parents will provide you with a framework to help you guide and support your child while remaining steady during what can be an emotional and unpredictable time of change.
Rule 1: Get Comfortable with The Uncomfortable
Rename the first year of college, “The Getting Uncomfortable Year.” It’s going to be uncomfortable for them and for you at times. Websites and campus tours don’t reveal what really happens once students move on to campus. According to the ACHA-NCHA, 51.7% of students felt lonely over the last 12 months1. A Student Voice survey (from Inside Higher Ed, College Pulse, and Kaplan) also shared that 65% of students reported having fair or poor mental health over the last year2. And 72% of student affairs officials believe campus mental health (of students, faculty, staff) has worsened over the past year3. The data supports it: college is a time of big change. The changes are social, emotional, physical, financial, and academic. And they can all happen at once. Uncomfortable is normal, and most students will experience it.
When a parent acknowledges that uncomfortable is part of the normal and natural college experience, it’s less daunting for your child to talk to you about their discomfort, share their feelings, listen to your suggestions, and get help. The more comfortable you can be with the uncomfortable changes ahead, the more comfortable you can make the journey for your student.
Rule 2: Don’t Panic! Think People, Places, and Patience
When your child gets uncomfortable, don’t panic. Think: people, places, and patience. Make it your mantra. Ask yourself: Who are the people who can support, guide, and help them? Where are the places they can find connection and community on and off campus? How long will it take for them to find the answers?
Encourage your student to find their people and places on campus. Places are where they will sweat, play, pray, live, learn, lead, love, and work. It’s where they will meet more people and find community. Orientation events can be a helpful way for them to identify their people and places. Students can connect with peer leaders, professionals, identify resources, and find support services. Encourage your student to find at least one place where they can be included and welcomed simply by showing up. Most colleges offer involvement fairs where your student can chat with potential organizations and clubs that they can join. Spiritual groups, multicultural centers, and first-generation programs are just a few options, but they must give it time. Sometimes, it can take a good three to six months to find the right people and best places.
When you’re on campus, take a mental note of the faculty, staff, and leadership you meet. This will come in handy later. And make sure you have your own people and places. Connect with parents on relevant Facebook groups. Seek out your support system for this journey, too.
Rule 3: Their Struggles and Their Victories Belong to Them
The college websites and fancy marketing materials don’t show students struggling, but it’s completely normal. Let your child work through the challenges they face. If you intervene, you might take away their opportunity to learn and grow. While it might feel better for you to fix the problem, you’re just creating a bigger problem by getting too involved. Your child needs to be able to fix their problems on their own. Be a spectator and allow them space to work through the discomfort. Give them a chance to practice advocating for themselves. A parent who understands that being uncomfortable is part of the journey can give their child the time they need to struggle and fix their problems at their own pace.
Rule 4: Apply the 24-hour Rule
When a problem pops up – and it will – urge them to wait for 24-hours. Have them go for a walk, or encourage them to grab some food. Just give it time! Time is their friend. What will happen over the next 24-hours?
- The problem will still be there tomorrow.
- The problem will be solved.
- A new and exciting problem will pop up and the old problem will no longer be a problem.
Once emotions settle, there can be a thoughtful response. Discourage them from yelling, screaming, sending the text, or making that call. Encourage everyone to follow the 24-hour rule. This means you, too. With time comes clarity. All that said, if it’s an emergency, get them help as soon as possible. Investigate mental health resources on campus (many times these services are included with your tuition and fees).
Rule 5: Ask them the question…
What do you think you should do? And just listen. Yes, I know you know the answer, but give them some room to figure it out for themselves. If they call you frustrated and upset, ask them if they are looking to vent or if they want advice. If they’re looking to vent, your amazing suggestions will just irritate them. If they’re looking for advice, your input will be better received.
Then go through the drill. What do they want? What’s making them uncomfortable? Who are the people who can help? Where are the places they can find answers? How long will it take? Expect them to struggle. If they can’t get answers, help them identify the people who can help and the places where they can find support. Remind them that this can be uncomfortable, but it’s part of their education. These are some of the most important lessons they will take with them from college.
Being the best supporter of your child doesn’t mean fixing their problems. It means giving them the time, space, and tools to fix it themselves.
1. American College Health Association. (2023). American College Health Association-National College Health Assessment III: Reference Group Executive Summary Fall 2022. American College Health Association.,
2. Ezarik, M. (2021). Students Struggle but Don’t Seek Colleges’ Help. Inside Higher Ed | Higher Education News, Events and Jobs.
3. NASPA, & Uwill. (2023, January). Current State of College & Student Mental Health.