child jumping

By Laura Walls

Recently, I have gotten a lot of referrals for young adults who are struggling at college. This can look very different for each student but what almost all of them have in common is failing classes. They may also be isolated and distant or partying hard and moody. Whatever the case, I hear parents struggling to understand what happened. In high school, this same child flourished and many parents felt strongly that their child would excel.

Normally, what I hear underlying the question of why is my child struggling at college is where did I go wrong? However, there are lots of reasons that a young person may struggle at college. Here are a few, and more importantly, what to do about them.

1. The most common reason a client of mine is struggling in college is an unrecognized, underlying issue. Kids are resilient, you hear that phrase all the time, and it is mostly very true. When a child or adolescent has an issue, say they are very anxious or struggle to concentrate, a lot of kids are able to adapt to that situation during public school. Our school system is overcrowded and a child who is not causing trouble, can easily slip by without drawing attention, especially if they (and their parents) don’t even realize they need that attention. So, when a student with an unrecognized anxiety issue (for example) arrives at college, it becomes very difficult to adapt in the ways he or she has in the past. This is mostly because, up until this point, the adaption was forced. A child had to give a presentation or their parents would be upset or they had to engage in activities or they would get in trouble with the teacher. Now, they get to college and they can avoid, avoid, avoid, which results in long-term issues, especially with grades, but not the same immediate consequences as in the past. Same idea for a child with an attention issue. Up until college, a student may have been able to focus at school and on schoolwork enough (combined with a sometimes not so gentle push from parents) to get by. Again, now he is at college, with no one to push him and the video games call to him.

The fix: A referral to counseling. Thankfully, most of the time, this unrecognized issue can be easily helped with a referral to a therapist. Many parents worry that this will lead to medication but most often there is no need for medication to help with the issue. As a parent, we know all you can do is offer the suggestion of getting help. The student may not take you up on the offer but it is the best course of action for this issue.

2. Due to a number of different circumstances, many young adults, are not prepared for independence. If you are a parent reading this about your own child, I realize that this is the part where you start to blame yourself. And here is the hardest thing you will have to do as a parent: stop blaming yourself. Sure, you could go through a list in your head of all the things you have done wrong that have led to your child not being ready for college (every parent could), but that will only serve to upset you and not help the situation at all. In the end, you did your best and all parents have to forgive themselves because no one is perfect. Guess what, every parent has made mistakes.

The fix: Allow some independence and mistakes. Don’t save them. You may have noticed that when you try to intervene, they just get angry and don’t listen anyway. That’s because they have to work things out on their own now. I know how hard it can be for parents to watch their children make mistakes but it will build a flourishing adult in the end. Sometimes the parental safety net is too secure. Obviously, you will always be their parent and there to help if needed but a lot of my clients report that they know in the back of their mind, they have a very solid, permanent safety net. Letting them know that the expectation is that your child will find independence is not only necessary, it is beneficial to the student.

3. The change itself is sometimes the only thing to blame. Many students have never experienced a change as huge and overwhelming as college. Since they have never had to handle something like this before, they are ill-equipped to do so now, at least temporarily.

The fix: Exposure. This exposure can be slow at first, meaning a student can come home and visit but also needs to try new activities at school. This can range from an academic club to a religious organization to a volunteer group. Whatever it is, encourage the student to try to be a part of something outside of classes. And be validating but also positive about making changes. One issue I see is when the parents are also miserable about their child leaving. The student and parents come together and complain. I understand that this time is hard not only for the student but saying, something like, “I hear that it is hard for you and I’m sorry you’re struggling but what’s something you can do about it?” can make a big difference.

Now, what about money? Many parents mention or even threaten to stop providing money because their child is failing classes. However, most of the time, this never actually happens. Money is a sensitive issue in our society and everyone has different opinions and expectations when it comes to paying for college. Parents want to know if they are helping or hurting by paying for college, especially when a student is struggling with grades. It is completely reasonable and often beneficial to have the student help pay for college. The cost of college is huge and it is pretty much impossible for a student to pay the full cost on his or her own. However, you can limit what “extras” you will pay for, and request help with paying. It is important to set expectations and communicate openly about it when it comes to money.

Lastly, many parents struggle with wondering whether the struggle their child is having is typical stress related to college or if there is something more serious going on. If you are sure that there is an underlying emotional issue or if the issues last more than one semester, time to make a referral.


Photo: happy by Carmela Nava / is licensed under CC BY 2.0

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