REALITY CHECK: The freshman year dropout rate has reached an all time high at more than 26 percent (that’s one of every four students) and four of ten students report feeling depressed to the point it was difficult to function. Depression, stress, and drop-outs peak during the SECOND half of the FIRST year.
Your son or daughter is coming back home 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.
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, back to family and friends. And it’s over this holiday break when parents play a critical role in making sure that second semester goes smoother and safer.
Here are things to do during to check up on your college teens’s emotional needs before he returns to that worrisome second semester. I shared these on the Today show last year about this same time. That video clip is available through NBC Today show.
• Look for stress and depression. 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? Give things a couple of days to settle and then tune into your teen’s daily behavior. Anything about it that doesn’t ring true? Are there any hot button concerns? 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 teenis 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 descriptions of school experience. 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 to ask. Does she seem happy? Is he adjusting? Does he have new friends? Is she involved in any activities (going to the gym, pledging a frat). Or does he want to be home? Watch him over these next two weeks. Does he make any attempt to contact (text, cell, email) a “friend” from college? If not, why? How does he describe his school. Does he use the word “MY” (my school) or “OUR” (“Our team collaborated State). Is he developing any sense of school pride or an ownership? Red Flags: When you called he was never available (too much partying—not enough studying) or he was always in his room so he never formed connections. “No connections” is a big sign of adjustment problems and can lead to dropping out.
• Listen to what your kid 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 it: “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: 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 on 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.
• 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 www.acha.org and show him. Make an appointment with a mental health professional. Do NOT wait. 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.
• 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. Convey you love him no matter what. Just knowing that you are concerned takes tremendous weight off of a teen. 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.
Take this time to not only celebrate the holidays and your teen’s homecoming but also to assess his adjustment and mental health. One in ten college students will consider suicide. The highest rate of drop-outs is second semester. Please tune in a bit closer. Please take this trend seriously! And please get help for your teen if you suspect your son or daughter may be depressed.
For specific information on the warning signs of child and adolescent depression, late-breaking news and what to do, please refer to Depressed (page 466) in The Big Book of Parenting Solutions: 101 Answers to Your Everyday Challenges and Wildest Worries.