College parenting is difficult. Anyone who has a student headed to college, in college, or recently out of college has realized just how difficult the college parenting job can be. One of the most difficult things about this phase of parenting is feeling helpless at times as you watch your student struggle with something. One of the times when we often see this happening is during that stressful end-of semester period. Parents may see and hear their student experiencing what appears to be a meltdown in response to the pressure and stress that occurs at the end of the semester.
We’ve written an earlier post about helping your student through that end-of-semester push. Although we may often feel helpless, parents can be helpful and supportive in several ways. In this post, we’d like to examine the end-of-semester stress a bit more closely. It may be helpful for us, as parents, to be reminded of exactly what students are feeling and experiencing at this point in the college year.
What causes student stress?
The stress that students feel as the end of the semester nears is very real and is often overwhelming. And this stress is felt by both the best students and struggling students alike. Students often realize that there is more left to do than they realized. They recognize that they may have procrastinated on some projects more than they thought. They worry about deadlines, final papers, projects, presentations, and final exams.
In addition to all of the academic pressure which students feel near the end of the semester, they may also be experiencing other end-of-year stress or stress about returning home for break. Your student may be worrying about a summer or winter job or internship and trying to finalize plans. Your student, especially your freshman, may be apprehensive about returning to live at home after experiencing the freedom of life away at college. Your student may be sad about leaving college friends, especially a possible new boyfriend or girlfriend. Your student may still be trying to deal with aspects of the next academic year or semester — housing, class schedule, internship or campus job. At this point in the semester and year, your student may definitely feel overwhelmed and out of control.
What does stress look like?
Different people react to stress differently. Students are no different. Some students will thrive on the stress and adrenaline of the end of the term, while other students may feel overwhelmed and begin to crumble. Parents can help students recognize the possible symptoms of stress so that students can better recognize when they may need to address the situation. Of course your student may be feeling overwhelmed, but ask them whether they are feeling too overwhelmed to be able to cope. Are they more emotional than usual? Are they experiencing headaches or stomachaches constantly? Are they having difficulty focusing and paying attention? Helping your student analyze the degree of their stress may be a good beginning.
How can parents help?
If you sense that your college student may be experiencing a stress meltdown, you may feel helpless. The reality is that, on one level, you can’t help and you need to let your student deal with their situation. You can’t take the exam, give the speech, or say goodbye to friends. Even if you could do some things such as follow up about housing or schedule, you shouldn’t. This stress is part of the college experience.
However, as a parent, coaching from the sidelines, there are ways that you can help your student at this difficult time. Here are a few things to consider, and possibly to discuss with your student.
- Give your student some space. This may be one of the most difficult things to do. You want to jump in and help. You know that you have advice that your student should hear. But your student may just need some time and/or space to feel independent. Try to listen carefully to the messages that you are getting and decide when it’s best to weigh in and when it’s best to step back.
- Listen when your student needs to vent. Remember that phone call you may have gotten early in the freshman year when your student was overwhelmed and possibly homesick? Remember how they just needed to unload what they were feeling and all you could do was to listen? You may need those listening skills again now. Your student may not need you to actually do anything, but they may need you to listen while they complain about what has to be done and how they will never get it done. Once your student has shared their feelings, they may be ready to move on and tackle whatever it is. Remember that listening is important. You are helping your student just by being there.
- Help your student realize that stress is not all bad. A certain amount of stress and challenge keeps us sharp and focused. It helps us manage and deal with the demands placed on us. The problems arise when we begin to feel out of control. Help your student try to control the stress rather than seeing stress as the enemy.
- Help your student recognize that they are not alone. Most students feel some degree of pressure at this time. Even those students who appear to have everything under control are probably feeling challenged. It may also help your student to recognize that faculty members, too, feel pressure at this time of semester. All of those papers, presentations and exams need to be graded! It may be helpful for your student to recognize that everyone is feeling just as stressed.
- Recommend that your student make a list of everything that they need to do — and then prioritize the list. Your student may be in denial about the amount of work, and it feels as though putting it on paper will only make it worse. However, knowing what you have to face is usually helpful. Prioritizing the list helps your student create an action plan. Once your student has a plan, they have a place to begin. Sometimes beginning is the hardest step.
- Recommend that your student create a schedule and use all of their time management skills. Blocking out what they need to do and when they will do it will help them feel more in control of what they need to accomplish. This will also help your student decide what they can change — and what they can’t change. Your student will need to let go of those things which can’t be changed.
- Remind your student not to ignore their health. Your student may not get eight hours of sleep a night and eat three full meals a day at this time of semester, but remind them that they will be more productive if they pay attention to their body and at least try to get some sleep, eat some healthy food, and get a bit of exercise.
- Suggest that your student maintain — or break — routine. For some students, maintaining a regular routine is helpful. They can settle in and let auto-pilot guide them through the end of the semester. Other students may need a break in the normal routine to shake them up a bit. Perhaps studying in a new place will help. Perhaps writing the paper in the library rather than the usual dorm room may help. Your student should consider whether the norm — or a change — will be most helpful.
- Encourage your student to investigate what the college can offer. Are there course review sessions? Is there extra tutoring or writing help available? Does the counseling center offer extra counseling sessions? Are there special stress-reducing activities such as yoga or meditation? Might counseling help? Encourage your student to take advantage of any and every bit of the support system that may be available.
- Be patient — and encourage your student to be patient. As difficult and overwhelming as this time may be, it is a short-lived phase. Whatever happens, the semester will soon be over. You and your student both need to be patient with each other and with yourselves. Tensions are probably high, nerves raw, and extra patience will help everyone. This sprint to the finish will get your student over the finish line.
For college students, the end of the semester is one of the most challenging times of the year. For college parents, the tension of feeling helpless may almost seem worse. Be patient with your student, take a few minutes to recognize how far they may have come since last fall, and continue to let them know how proud you are of their abilities.