It may not be inevitable, but it is common and it is normal. It’s two weeks into your college freshman’s first semester, (or three weeks, or one week, or five weeks) and you get the phone call. It may be three o’clock in the afternoon, but more likely it is midnight. Your student is miserable. He hates school, he is overwhelmed academically, he has no friends, he hates the food, he’s ready to come home. As a parent, you panic. This was all a mistake, he should have gone somewhere else, or stayed home, or commuted to a local school. You are ready to leave home immediately and go to school to collect him and bring him home. At the very least, you are up half of the night worrying about him.
But wait, you are not alone! Understanding that this phone call may be a normal part of the adjustment to college for many freshmen may help. Being prepared for the situation, while hoping that it never arises, will help. Here are some suggestions for what to do if you get that phone call from your miserable college freshman.
- Don’t panic. Remember that this is a normal phase in the adjustment to college. While it may not happen for every student, or will happen to differing degrees for different students, once the initial “honeymoon” phase is over, many students go through a period of adjustment to the reality of college life.
- Listen. It is possible that all your student really needs is a sympathetic ear. She knows that you are her home base and her foundation and that she can count on you. She may just need to vent. Let her talk it out. As difficult as it may be, just listen.
- Remain calm. No matter what your student is telling you, no matter how upset your student may be, she needs you to be calm right now. She needs you to be the strong one. Don’t escalate the situation or her feelings. No matter what your emotions may be doing at this moment, try to stay calm and be a neutralizing force.
- Empathize and support your student. Let him know that you understand what he is telling you. Let him know that you are there and will continue to be there no matter what. He knows this, but he may need to hear it again right now.
- Don’t trivialize what your student is telling you. As you think about how to respond to your student, don’t try to make her feel better by trivializing what she is telling you. “I’m sure it can’t be that bad,” may sound helpful on the surface, but you are telling her that her feelings or reactions are wrong and out of proportion to the situation. Right now things may be that bad for her. Validate what she is feeling.
- Try to determine the exact problem. Is her dissatisfaction generally with everything having to do with college, or is there a specific issue that is upsetting her? Ask her to try to tell you exactly what the problem is. In trying to describe it, she may realize that it is one specific issue – and then together you may be able to come up with a solution for that issue. Or as she describes a specific issue in detail she may discover for herself that it really isn’t as big an issue as it seemed.
- Don’t jump in to rescue your student. As parents, our natural tendency is to want to fix things and make everything better for our child. Remember that self confidence and independence are important goals for your college student. Although he may be asking you for help, the help that your student needs right now is probably not for you to head to school or pick up the phone to make it all better. Resist the impulse to take charge.
- Ask your student what can be done to make the situation better. If she has been able to describe the problem specifically, she may be able to begin to think about how it can be fixed. If she is worried about having no friends, ask her to brainstorm with you some ideas about how to meet some new people, or how to find others with similar interests. If she is worried about her schoolwork, ask whether it is a specific class or all classes. Ask about academic support services or whether there is a student in class who can help.
- Help him develop an action plan. Don’t let your student feel like a victim at the mercy of the situation. Help him think about specific things that he can do once he hangs up the phone. He may be able to work toward fixing the problem, or at least he may be able to think about how he will cope with his feelings right now.
- Suggest that your student sleep on it and talk to you again tomorrow or in a couple of days. Often, as parents, we lie awake all night worrying, while our student goes to sleep and then moves on the next morning while we are still worrying. Things may look very different in the light of day. Don’t dismiss the problem, but ask your student to give it time and then talk to you about it again later.
- Encourage her to make use of help that is available on campus. Has she explored help from her residence assistant, the counseling center, the tutoring center, the student activities office, her advisor or a sympathetic professor?
- If he says he’s ready to drop out, ask whether he can just finish this semester. Don’t give in too quickly, but don’t make him feel he’s stuck for four years. Try to compromise. Tell him you understand, and that coming home or transferring may be the answer. But suggest that he try to make it through the few weeks until the end of the semester. This will give him time to evaluate and find balance. He may still need to leave at that time, but he may also find that things have improved, he has made friends, and he doesn’t want to leave after all.
- Be positive. Continue to speak positively about the college and the college experience. Let your student know that you understand her feelings, but that overall the college is a good place and the experience of being at college is important and is good for most students. Don’t buy in to her negativity. Your response and your attitude will send an important message to your student.
The adjustment to college during the freshman year is a difficult one for both students and parents. For many parents, leaving their student at school is emotionally difficult. It is especially difficult if your student calls to tell you that she is unhappy. Being prepared for that potential phone call – and realizing that it is a normal phase of the letting-go process, will help you to help your student move through this phase to true adjustment.