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  • Writer's pictureSarah Santiago

How Parents Can Support College Students' Mental Health:

Updated: May 11

The transition to college is a pivotal phase in a young person's life. While it's a time of exciting opportunities and personal growth, it can also be marked by significant challenges and stress. As a parent or caregiver, it has been your job to care for a support your teen for their entire life and it can often leave you feeling unsure of how to help once they move away to college. You might worry that you're not helping enough, or that you're possibly stepping in too much. You might even find yourself completely unsure of how to help.

As a therapist with a background in higher education and who exclusively works with college students, I can tell you that despite their increasing independence from you (and despite how they may act at times), your college student still deeply needs your unconditional love and support.

In this blog post, we'll discuss the essential role parents and caregivers play in supporting the mental health of their college-aged young adults and the importance of maintaining open communication.

Understanding College Students' Mental Health: College students face unique mental health challenges, including academic pressure, social adjustments, and the pursuit of personal and career goals. According to the University Of Michigan's most recent healthy minds study, the most commonly reported mental health issues for college students are depression, anxiety, and disordered eating. As a parent, understanding these challenges and how to support your college student is the first step in providing effective support.

The Role of Parents in Supporting Mental Health:

  1. Understand and Accept That This Is Hard: being a parent is hard, and being a young adult is very different, yet also hard. Both experiences are completely different and both are hard. The world and experiences of today's young adults is completely different from what prior generations experienced, and it's important that we don't compare experiences or try to minimize anyone's struggles.

  2. Maintain Open Communication: Create an environment where your college student feels comfortable discussing their feelings and concerns. Try not to minimize their feelings or dismiss them. Let them know that you care about what they are going through and are always ready to listen. Regular check-ins can help you stay connected and informed about their well-being and it's important to get on the same page as your college student about how often you will plan to communicate. See below for more tips with this step.

  3. Empathetic Listening: Practice active listening when your college student shares their thoughts and emotions. Offer empathy, understanding, and validation. According to experts, teens really just need their parents to be a safe space for them to vent and dump their stress. If they can fall apart with someone safe like you, they can often go back out into the world being strong and resilient. Often, your young adult just wants you to listen and not necessarily do anything; if you're unsure you can always ask by saying "I want to support you the way that is best for you, would you prefer that I just listen right now or would you like me to help you problem solve?".

  4. Be A Sponge: Ok so we've discussed that your college student is likely to dump all of their problems on you verbally, and it's important to acknowledge how hard that can feel as a parent/caregiver. It's so important to be a safe space for your college student to vent and to not add fuel to their fire. As difficult as it may be, try not to get worked up and magnify their problems. As a parent myself, I understand how challenging this can be, but as a therapist I often hear college students tell me that they want to open up to their parents but they don't want to stress their parents out more. They care about you and all that is on your plate and they don't want to add any more to it. When you remain calm and don't get worked up about whatever stressors they are venting about (no matter how huge they may seem), you are communicating to them that you can handle whatever they are going through and that you are a safe person for them to turn to for support.

  5. Respect Boundaries: Respect your young adult's need for independence and autonomy. Offer support without being overbearing. It's also okay for you to model healthy boundaries and communicate your needs in a healthy way. Examples can include things like "The allowance we send you is not to be used to purchase alcohol and if that happens we will be reducing your allowance to x amount".

  6. Educate Yourself: Familiarize yourself with common mental health issues among college students, as mentioned above. Understanding the signs and symptoms is crucial. Here are some important signs to look for when it comes to teen mental health. This is another page with information on how to help support your college student.

  7. Support-Seeking: Encourage your college student to seek professional help if needed. Be open to the idea of therapy or counseling as a valuable resource for their well-being. It's important for college students to feel connected and to have safe spaces where they can be themselves. Most college campuses have mental health professionals available to students, and many social opportunities such as student organizations and social events for students to participate in. It can also be valuable to your college student for you to see support for yourself if you find this transition to be difficult. Knowing that a parent or caregiver seeks support when needed can make it much easier for a young adult to decide to seek similar support. Certainly if you or your college student is ever in a crisis, please seek support immediately.

Tips for Maintaining Open Communication:

  1. Stay in Touch: Regularly check in with your college student through calls, texts, or video chats. Maintain a strong sense of connection, even from a distance.

  2. Non-Judgmental Attitude: Ensure your young adult knows they can confide in you without judgment. Create a safe space for open conversation.

  3. Ask Open-Ended Questions: Instead of asking yes-or-no questions, ask open-ended and specific questions to encourage deeper conversations.

  4. Share Your Support: Reiterate your unconditional love and support, emphasizing that you are there for them during both good and challenging times.

Supporting the mental health of college-aged students is a crucial responsibility for parents. By maintaining open communication, offering empathy, and providing an understanding and non-judgmental environment, parents can empower their young adult to navigate the unique mental health challenges of college life. Remember that your involvement in their mental health journey is a significant factor in their overall well-being and success and while this transition can feel hard at times, it's the start of the next chapter of your adult relationship with the wonderful human you've helped raise.

I always like to thank parents who are supportive of their college students, especially when it comes to their mental health. The world would benefit from more compassionate and supportive parents like you, so thank you for being here on this blog learning about ways that you can continue to be an incredible parent to your young adult. If I can offer any help or support at all, please don't hesitate to contact me.

Note: This blog post is not intended to replace professional advice. If you are experiencing severe anxiety or mental health issues, it is recommended to consult with a licensed mental health professional. If you are in a crisis, please seek help immediately.

About the author: Sarah Santiago is a licensed professional counselor in Michigan. She provides therapy to Michigan college students and emerging adults (ages 18-29) virtually. Her specialties include helping clients work through anxiety, eating disorders, and improving self-confidence.

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