College Depression: Crucial parental checks before your teen heads back

by | Dec 29, 2011 | Depression and Suicide

Parent Alert: College mental health crisis and signs your teen may be depressed or at risk of dropping out

Your son or daughter is back from college for the holidays! He or she spent months studying for those SATs, filling out college applications and agonizing.  Then acceptance! You move your teen into the dorm, hug goodbye and drive away assuming that the stress is finally over and the new life has begun.Right? Not according to the latest statistics from university counseling centers.

Stress and pressure in our teens are back and up at epidemic levels.

~ The freshman year dropout rate has reached an all time high at more than 26 percent (that’s one of every four students).

~ Four of ten students report feeling depressed to the point it was difficult to function.

~ What’s more, depression, stress, and drop-outs peak during the second half of the first year of college.

College counselors realize these troubling stats and are making changes on campuses to try to better meet kids’ emotional needs. Meanwhile, thousands of college students are home for a break but will be returning shortly.

It’s over this holiday break and these next few days when parents play a critical role in making sure that second semester goes smoother and safer for their teen.

Here are things to do during to check up on your college teens’s emotional needs before he or she returns to that worrisome second semester. I’ve also listed “Red Flags” that you should tune into.

Look for Marked Changes in Your Teen

Yes, you will see a change in your teen. He or she probably will be a bit moody, lazy, sleepy or defiant. But when do you worry? Use these indicators:

Marked Not Typical Behaviors. Tune into your teen’s daily behavior. Is there anything about that behavior that doesn’t ring true to your kid’s “normal nature”? Are there “hot button” concerns?

Use the “Too” Index: Identify the behavior that concerns you (i.e. “moody”). Now apply the word “too.” Is he too moody for your instinct and for “too” long.

Red Flag: Whenever your teen is demonstrating too much of a behavior that is not normal him and it lasts longer than two weeks, get help. Whenever in doubt, use your instinct.

Listen for School Experiences

Tune in a bit closer. Listen to how your teen describes the school experience. Also listen to the silence — the things she doesn’t say.

Ask: “Would you recommend the school to other kids?” “If you had it all over again would you apply to the same place?”

If he doesn’t open up to you, ask a friend for input. The keys you want to know:

Does she seem happy in her new place away from home?

Is he adjusting?

Does he have new friends?

Is she involved in any activities (going to the gym, pledging a frat).

Does he want to be home? Or indicate he does not want to return? (If so, listen!!! That environment may not be right for your teen. There is always another place!)

Does he make any attempt to contact (text, cell, email) a “friend” from college? If not, why?

How does she describe his school? Does she use the pronoun “MY” (my school) or “OUR” (”Our team collaborated State). Those pronouns are clues that your teen is bonding with the school. Is he developing any sense of school pride or an ownership?

Red Flags: “No connections” is a big sign of adjustment problems and can lead to dropping out. Be concerned if your teen is not involved in any part of the school – friends, fraternity, band, parties, athletics, dorm life, roommate and always in his room so he is not forming connections.

Listen to What Your Teen Doesn’t Say About Grades

Hearing what your kid doesn’t say can be revealing. So listen to his silence. Does he bring up his grades, a professor, or how hard (or easy) the final was? Is he evasive when you ask how he’s doing? Don’t ask: “What grade did you get?” Reframe the question: “Was it as hard as you thought it would be?”

Red Flag: A distress indicator can be when a teen doesn’t say anything about schoolwork or is evasive.

Brainstorm Possible Solutions

If your teen is overwhelmed or feels he might fail, then be clear that you’ll help find solutions Just one change can be enough to turn things around.

For instance: Change majors? Change dorms? Pledge a fraternity? Change roommates? Find a tutor? Get a counselor? Change schools? Take a semester off?

Red Flag: Overwhelmed kids don’t see options and come up with poor solutions.

Check Sleep Patterns

Any college kid will sleep in once home, but those who are depressed and overwhelmed usually get their first really restful sleep in their own beds. Ask: “So glad you’re getting a rest. Were you able to sleep at school?”

Red Flag: Sleep troubles are often the first signs of adjustment problems and depression. Watch!

Tune Into Possible Signs of Depression

One in ten college students will consider suicide. The highest rate of drop-outs is second semester. Please tune in a bit closer and take this trend seriously! Get help for your teen if you suspect your son or daughter may be depressed.

Red flags: Know signs and symptoms of depression and suicidal feelings from the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. Are any of these signs ones you’ve noticed during the holiday break?

An increase in physical ailments. Headaches, stomachaches, nausea, sweaty palms, sleeplessness or always sleeping that don’t lessen with over-the-counter medication and rest.

A marked, sudden, or intense change. Something is radically different about your teen’s personality, temperament, or normal behavior that just is not right.

The pain or symptoms don’t go away. They last everyday during the holiday or becomes more intense, or just comes and goes, and nothing is easing your teen’s pain.

Your teen is preoccupied with death or feelings of hopelessness. He is drawing, writing or asking about death, giving away personal belongings, or saying “What’s the use?”

The sadness interferes with her daily life. Her social, academic or family life are affected. Withdrawal from friends, family, and regular activities. Loss of interest in pleasurable activities

Unusual neglect of personal appearance, marked personality change

Persistent boredom, difficulty concentrating, or a decline in the quality of schoolwork

Not tolerating praise or rewards; complains of being a bad person or feeling rotten inside

Red Flag: Take these behaviors seriously and immediately seek assistance from a qualified mental health professional.

Share Your Concerns

If you suspect your teen is depressed share your concerns: “I’m worried about you and think you might be depressed.”

Print off the depression signs posted on his college website or at and show him.

Make an appointment with a mental health professional. Tell your teen that you made an appointment. Don’t assume your teen will get to a counselor or make her own appointment. You must take control!

Red Flag: A depressed teen often realizes something isn’t right, but doesn’t know what’s wrong. Often the first to identify depression is a roommate or resident assistant.

 If you have contact with the roommate, ask.

Stay Connected

A teen’s biggest fear (and stressor) is not failing school but failing his parents. So focus now on your teen’s emotional needs not grades. Just knowing that you are concerned takes tremendous weight off of a teen. Take this time to not only celebrate the holidays and your teen’s homecoming but also to assess his adjustment and mental health. Convey you love him no matter what.

Red Flag: Many kids are struggling and don’t tell us only to go back second semester and drop out because they don’t want to let us down. One of the top reasons teens return back to that college in a depressed state is because they do not want to let a parent down. Convey your love and acceptance! Your child’s mental health is far more important than returning back to that college depressed! Get the help your teen needs now!

Dr. Michele Borba, Parenting Expert

For more Practical Parenting Advice follow me on twitter @MicheleBorba or on my daily blog, Dr. Michele Borba’ Reality Check.