5 BIGGEST MISTAKES PARENTS MAKE WHEN THEIR KID STRUGGLES AT COLLEGE

May 16, 2023

As a parent, the last thing you want is for your young adult to go off to college. In fact, if they have been high-achieving academically and athletically, when your young adult comes to you expressing their discomfort, most parents don’t actually know how to handle responding. What I’ve found in working with the families I’ve encountered though, is that there are things that are helpful to say and things said, that although are good intentioned, actually do more harm. Let’s talk about the five biggest mistakes parents make when their kid struggles in college.

1. Shame.

If you are paying for your young adult’s education, it’s hard not to see this as an investment thrown away. Even if your young adult is on scholarship, shaming them for “throwing away their scholarship” isn’t helpful either. There’s a very important distinction that needs to be made here. You can certainly be upset with your young adult about what they did, but what you need to be mindful of is making it sound as if you are shaming them for who they are as a person. I call it “Who vs. Do.” Your young adult is a lovely person. When they are struggling in school it’s important to remember, it’s not WHO they are, but rather WHAT they’re doing that may need changing. The words you use can sting, can bite, and can also provide immense relief. You can be pissed off all you want, just make you sure you’re not taking jabs at their character. If you are, that’s technically emotional abuse.

2. Denial and disregard.

I struggle with these parents, only because it really it home hard for me. After my first semester in college my father looked at my grades and said “get it together, or you’re on your own.” Fortunately, I was just having too much fun with outdoor adventures instead of caring for my coursework. I made a conscious choice after my first semester and double down when I returned for the spring. I understood the privilege and I appreciated what I was being given the opportunity to do. So I found balance so I could play hard and study hard. It worked out for me in the end. For the students struggling with mental health, substance abuse, and/or executive functioning this type of approach is not supportive. Telling them to metaphorically “pick themselves up by their bootstraps” and they “better lock it down next semester,” will not help them change or get the support they need. In fact, most of these students are so deep in denial with their issues that going back to school for another semester where we know statistically they will experience failure again can be torture. Torture because they are beating themselves up mental and physically, and having another failure to tote around is just something another trauma they’ll have to work through down the line. This type of parent doesn’t realize the depth of their young adult’s issue. This is a parent that may not believe in mental health and voice their opinion around stigma. This is a parent that may be in there own addiction and not realize that their young adult is on the fast track to being a functioning addict as well. We have to stop and think about whether or not it’s really a good idea to “finish the semester” or “return for the spring.” This is a lot of money that’s being wasted. Not to mention it means that it’s that much longer before your young adult really starts getting the treatment they need.

3. Outdated advice.

Think about your young adult in high school and how they interacted with their friends. Think of all the incidents – good and bad, that came from social media and cell phones in their lives. As a parent, you’ve got to be over the moon that your young adult is headed off to college! Your own college experience and the memories involved may be flooding back. Certainly, reflect on your college experience. Be wary though explaining or offering any advice about how to make friends or what college is life. No offense, a lot has changed since you were in college. Namely – technology. Making friends is a lot harder for our young people because they aren’t socialized to make friends the way college was
designed for people to meet. College used to be friends with your roommate, or introducing yourself to people on your floor or in your resident building. There might have been only one central location for dining on campus, now we often have food options scattered throughout. Students who used to be athletes in high school tend to stop playing for fear of “not knowing anyone” and/or not knowing how to join a team. For Pete’s sake – people walk around campus only looking down at their phones. It’s a completely different world on campus nowadays. Help your young adult brainstorm ways they can _____ [insert issue they’re having] and role play with them. Just try to leave out the stories of your college experience. Let your young adult figure it out on their own.

4. Rescue.

Students in this age are genuinely struggling to be connect and find a friend group. They are internalizing all the pressures they put on themselves, possibly the pressures you have put on them, and what society has said. It’s a tough spot to be in. We, as humans however, are meant for resiliency. That means that when we are faced with challenging, painful, and uncomfortable situations we adapt and learn. We move on, and heal. College is a perfect place for young adults to experience failure (whether it be with friends, relationships, college courses, etc.) and learn from it. College is failure inoculation. If a parent gets a text message from their young adult 5 weeks into the semester saying “I have no friends. I’m lonely. I miss you. I want to come,” please don’t immediately drop everything and run to their rescue. Do not immediately Google “how to withdraw from _____ University.” If you save them from these moments of discomfort, you are robbing them from the growing pains of adulthood. Let them know you can come visit, however they need to try to stick it out. I’ll throw in the caveat that if there was a significant incident then immediate removal can be appropriate. A situation such as sexual assault or a psychotic episode warrant a message that says “you don’t have to wait to come home until the end of the semester.” For everyone else who just hates the fact that they tried once to meet people and it was a bust and now they want to give up, that’s a hard no in coming home.

5. No Accountability.

Let’s be clear about this. When a young adult goes off to college it’s important for the parent to ensure that the young adult understands accountability. As an adult, they are accountable for everything in their life – down the way in which they perceive what is happening around them. That means that by yelling at people for the things others “did to them” they realize they will not get anywhere in their academic career. When the young adult blames their failed grades on early classes, poor teaching, inconvenient office hours, not understanding and accents, a professor who never responded to e-mails, etc. it’s paramount that the parent discuss with their child what’s in their control. Who earned the grades? Their student did. Yes, the graded were given by the professors, however it was based on a scale. Your student could have selected a class at a different time, advocated to learn the material on their own outside of the class knowing that the style of the teacher wasn’t what worked for them as a learner, etc. Are you seeing where I’m going with this? College is not high school. Under no circumstance is it beneficial for a parent to step in to contact a professor on behalf of their young adult. First, FERPA. Second, it’s their education. They need to take responsibility. This is something they need to not only understand, but exhibit. So when your young adult starts point their finger to blame anyone and everything for the bad things in their life, remind that there are also three fingers subsequently pointed back at them. Help your young adult take ownership.

All of these responses are normal. You’re a parent. It’s hard not to want to help your young adult be happy, healthy, and successful. If you are doubting whether or not your reactions are doing more harm than good, I recommend speaking with someone. Find a parent support group, individual therapist, or parent coach. Do it alone and do it with your spouse. It’s important to be a united front in supporting your young adult as well. If you see that you’re doing one of these tactics now, definitely reconsider what you’re doing. Think of other ways to support your young adult in becoming an adult!

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