Signs That Your College Student May Be in Trouble

It is a natural thing for college parents to worry about the success of their student in college.  We hope for the best, mostly assume the best, and then we worry.  If your college student is a long distance away, or may have had some difficulties in high school, you worry even more.  Depending on what you and your college student have agreed is appropriate, you may be communicating with your student often (hopefully not too often!), or more infrequently (maybe once a week?).  When you do communicate, you listen carefully to what your student is saying — both directly and between the lines — and you try to determine how she is doing.

Obviously, all students are different — and the same student may seem very different or communicate differently at different times.  But there are some signs that you can watch and listen for that may indicate that your student is struggling with his college experience.  Nothing is foolproof, and you know your student best.  You will need to listen and observe carefully and try to determine whether something is the result of a mood or passing phase, or something more serious.  Be alert, especially, for multiple signs — and for behaviors that persist.  Remember to be patient and not to jump to quick conclusions.  College students, for the most part, are resilient.  What is a crisis today passes and may be fine in a day or two.  As a college parent, you should expect to see/hear some of these behaviors at times, but do recognize symptoms of trouble if you see several of the following indications that last.

Some possible signs of trouble:


  • Your student calls home a lot.  Remember that ”a lot” is a relative term.  Some students may just want to check in each day and others may not even need to touch bases weekly.  This is one reason why it is a good idea to agree, before your student leaves for college, how often you both expect to communicate.  If your student calls home much more frequently than you both have planned, listen carefully to the reasons for the call.  (Of course, during the first few weeks, or during an especially stressful time, you may expect extra calls as the norm.)
  • Your student never calls home. If you’ve agreed on a reasonable amount of contact and your student misses calls, doesn’t answer your calls, or never calls, talk to her about it.  It is possible that she is busy and happy and forgets.  You may need to remind her that an occasional, quick call will reassure you.  Or you may perceive that there is another reason why she doesn’t check in.  (Remember, too, that a ”reasonable amount of contact” is something on which you and your student need to agree.  If you and she have a different notion of what is reasonable, that may explain why she is not calling.)
  • Your student wants to come home a lot. Again, agreeing ahead of time on how often you expect your student to come home during the semester is important. Spending time on campus is an important way for students to become engaged.    If your student wants to come home every weekend, he is not participating fully in the life of the college. Investigate why your student wants/needs to come home often.
  • Your student never wants to come home. If your student doesn’t want to come home for breaks or holidays, you may want to discuss the reasons.  There may be good reasons, but you may want to be sure.
  • When your student does come home for a visit — whether for a weekend or a break — he is resistant to returning to school.  There may be a normal reluctance to return to school (think about how many of us feel about returning to work on Monday mornings or after vacation), but if there is serious resistance, ask why.
  • Your student is negative about everything. It is natural for students to be unhappy and complain about some things at school.  This may range from the food, to lack of friends, to professors, to amount of work, to dorm rooms, to roommates, or any number of other things.  Students often complain — and they may complain to you a lot.  But if your student is negative about everything at college, you should dig deeper.
  • Your student is not participating in any activities or groups at school. Studying is important, but college is about the total experience.  If your student is not participating in anything outside of class, she may not be adjusting well.
  • Your student is not going to class. This may be one of the most important factors for success.  If your student is not attending, find out why.
  • Your student is not completing things. Ask how assignments are going.  Ask about progress on that paper or project.  Of course, it is always possible that your student will tell you what you want to hear whether or not it is true, but try to find out whether normal work is getting done.
  • Your student is getting low grades.  Ask about grades on assignments completed.  Ask about midterm assessments.  Ask about end-of-semester grades.  Ask your student for an honest assessment of how things are going.
  • You notice a significant weight change when you see your student.  Of course, there is always the infamous ”freshman fifteen“, but a significant gain or loss of weight may indicate a bigger problem.
  • Your student has an excessive need for extra money.  Students always need more money, but if your student is constantly asking for money, ask where it is going.
  • You sense that there are problems, but your student is not sharing them and is not seeking help. Your instinct or ”gut feeling” may suggest something. Try to determine whether there are real and persistent problems and ask about them.  Suggest that your student get academic help, help from residence assistants, or counseling.  If your student won’t share and won’t seek help at school, there may be cause for concern.

As a parent, your gut may tell you when your student is in trouble.  It is important that you follow your intuition, but also essential that you maintain a sense of perspective.  College is a stressful and eventful time for students.  They are learning independence and balance, and they may make mistakes and falter on their path. Students often ride a roller coaster of experiences. Parents need to be careful not to assume the worst and not to overact, but they can listen carefully, watch for signs, and communicate openly with their student when they are concerned.

In our next post, we’ll consider some possible actions that parents can take if they are concerned about their college student.

Related Posts:

Helping Your College Student Find Support on Campus

When the College Experience Hits a Roadblock: Helping Your College Student Deal with Dissatisfaction

What Do I Do If My College Student is Homesick?

How Parents Can Help College Students Value Their Mistakes

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