No matter how excited your child is to start college, it's likely they have some worries as well.
Yes, even if your child assures you they feel super chill, keep in mind that they may not be able to verbalize exactly what their concerns are — especially because their fears may be largely based on unknown variables. What if I hate my roommate? What if my roommate hates me? What if I fail all my classes? What if I blow my scholarship? What if I get homesick?
They may also feel embarrassed to open up about their concerns. Now that they're an "adult," they should be able to handle everything, right?
But, in some respects, you probably know your child better than they know themselves. If you think something is a bit off with them, it's possible they're experiencing pre-college anxiety. Let's talk about some commons signs and what you can do to help.
Keep in mind the tips and advice below may not be appropriate for everyone. If you're concerned your child is experiencing extreme levels of anxiety or stress, please seek out help from a qualified medical doctor or mental health professional. The Crisis Text Line offers free 24/7 support for individuals in crisis. Text 741741 from anywhere in the US or Canada.
1. Changes in sleep patterns
Yes, teens' sleep patterns can seem pretty out-of-sync with the rest of the world. They may be up all night and sleep well into the afternoon on a regular basis. If that's their normal behavior, you probably don't have anything to worry about.
However, if you see a dramatic change in when, where, or how your child is sleeping, that may be a sign of anxiety. For example, if your son is usually up until all hours but suddenly can't keep his eyes open past nine, that may indicate he's using sleep as a coping mechanism, or that he's not getting enough restful sleep in a 24-hour period.
The problem is that lack of sleep can exacerbate anxiety. Use some of these tips from Pasquale Alvaro, PhD., to help your child establish a better sleep routine in the weeks before college:
- Encourage them to get outside early in the day. Exposure to sunlight in the morning can help promote better nighttime sleep by reinforcing the body's natural circadian rhythm (which regulates the sleep/wake cycle). If your child is resistant, you can ease the process by asking them to walk the dog or run an errand.
- Remind them to avoid technology before bed. This may sound impossible. However, if your child is really struggling with sleep, ask them to keep their phones outside of their room on a trial basis for three nights to see if things improve.
- Get some exercise. There are so many ways to work in exercise that go beyond running around a track or joining a gym. YouTube has many free offerings for at-home workouts, ranging from yoga to strength training. Video games that involve dancing, boxing, or movement can also be a great option. The type of exercise really doesn't matter. It's the movement that counts.
2. Changes in appetite
Some people stress eat. Some people can barely choke down a bowl of cereal when they're worried about something. Emotions can cause hormonal changes that impact our cravings and digestive systems. For example, the "fight or flight" response may suppress the desire to eat. Increased levels of cortisol, known as the stress hormone, may speed up digestion and prompt cravings for sugary, fatty foods.
You may not always be around to see what your child is eating. If that's the case, try to take note of the dishes in the sink or the dishwasher (or in the living room, or under their beds ...). Casually ask what they had for breakfast or lunch.
If your child is under-eating, make it a point to carve out a time for a family meal sometime soon. Ask what they'd like to have, and consider having them help shop or cook. You may find that working together in the kitchen is a great opportunity to connect. Often, kids find it easier to open up about their worries if you're both involved in a parallel activity.
If your child is over-eating, be sure to stock up on healthy options and scale back on indulgent snacks. Instead of having ice cream in the house, suggest going out for ice cream once a week. That will also give you a great excuse to have a family outing.
3. Procrastination or avoidance in packing/planning
If your child is dragging their heels about getting ready to pack, anxiety is a likely culprit. According to psychologist Alicia H. Clark, PsyD, PLLC, procrastination and anxiety often create a self-feeding cycle: procrastination creates anxiety, which can increase procrastination.
Procrastination may reveal several different flavors of anxiety, including:
- Feeling overwhelmed. Your child may not know where to start getting ready. If that's the case, you can help by breaking down the herculean task of "packing everything you need for college" into smaller, more manageable chunks. For example, start by looking at some pre-made checklists. Make an inventory of what you have in the house and what you need to buy. Just getting started can relieve the feeling of being overwhelmed.
- Not wanting to face the fact that they're leaving. On a subconscious level, your child may be avoiding preparing for college as a way to push away feelings of sadness or fear. That is, they don't really have to face what's coming next if they don't start packing. If you think that's true for your child, try to help them focus on feelings of excitement instead. For example, helping them plan some cool dorm room decor may help them visualize the positive aspects of going away.
- Feeling ambivalent about college. With a strange senior year of high school behind them and some pandemic restrictions still in place, many students are understandably feeling 'meh" about the fall 2021 semester. If your child can't seem to get over their disappointment that the "college experience" is not what they'd hoped, try to help them keep their eyes on the longer term future. Remind them that college is the next step toward preparing for the future and their future hasn't been canceled.
4. Sudden 'psychosomatic' illnesses
Headaches, stomachaches, back, neck, and/or shoulder pain with no obvious cause may actually be manifestations of anxiety, according to Katie Hurley, LCSW. However, it's important to keep in mind that just because a symptom has no obvious cause, doesn't mean that it's all in someone's head. In fact, chronic stress can actually compromise the immune system or create physical symptoms.
The upshot: Take your child's symptoms seriously. Visit your doctor to rule out any underlying physical symptoms, which will ease both of your minds. And while you're there, make sure all of your child's vaccines are up-to-date. College students are 3.5 times more likely to contract meningitis while living in a dorm. (Note: Many —but not all—colleges have announced they'll require incoming students to either be vaccinated for COVID-19 or be restricted to online learning options. Make sure you know what your child's college requires and talk to your family doctor if you have any questions or concerns.)
If your child's symptoms appear to be anxiety-induced, help them find ways to reduce stress. A healthy diet, a consistent sleep schedule, exercise, and meditation are proven stress fighters. Encouraging them to talk to a friend, write in a journal, or meet with a therapist may also help.
Finally, you can reinforce your child's sense of security by finding ways to increase your quality time together. Go for a drive, cook a special meal, or even make plans to binge-watching a TV show that you both enjoy.
See also: The Introvert’s Guide to Dorm Living
5. Substance abuse
People in many age groups turn to drugs and alcohol to help relieve or cope with stress. If you're concerned about substance abuse in the lead-up to college, it's important to address it before your child leaves for school. Building healthy coping mechanisms now will help them to more effectively deal with anxiety when they're not living under your roof.
According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMSA), there are four keys to addressing substance abuse:
- Health — Overcoming or managing one’s disease(s) or symptoms and making informed, healthy choices that support physical and emotional well-being
- Home — Having a stable and safe place to live
- Purpose — Conducting meaningful daily activities and having the independence, income, and resources to participate in society
- Community — Having relationships and social networks that provide support, friendship, love, and hope
Of course, if you believe that your child is on the verge of addiction, it's important to seek professional help. Call the SAMSA hotline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357) for free, confidential help.
6. Technology addiction
Yes, technology addiction is a real thing, according to two psychiatrists at the Rutgers New Jersey Medical School. In extreme cases, people may lose all interest in the real world in favor of spending time in their virtual worlds. In 2018, the World Health Organization even recognized gaming disorder as an official disease.
But even when love of technology is not taken to extreme levels, it can still serve as a similar escape or coping mechanism to drugs and alcohol. Video games, social media, pornography, and online gambling can all create cognitive reactions that mimic other types of addictive responses.
Reinforcing the four keys listed in the substance abuse section above may help your child reorient to focus on their current reality and upcoming college career. However, it's important to seek help from an addiction specialist if you believe that your child is suffering with an active addiction.
One last thing ...
If you have 50,000 things to say to your child before they leave but you don't know where to begin, check out Letter to Your Child Leaving for College: Some Ideas to Get Started.