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How to Help Kids Adjust to College

At this time of year, I start receiving dozens of tearful calls and panicky emails from parents whose children are off at college for the first time—and aren’t adjusting particularly well.

“He calls home several times a day, and feels like he doesn’t have any friends even though he’s playing lacrosse and has joined a fraternity,” one parent lamented. “Even though she’s doing everything right, she just texted me that she wakes up every morning feeling like she wants to cry,” wrote another.

Here’s the thing: It is totally normal for this major transition to be VERY DIFFICULT, especially if you’ve never been on your own before. Navigating making friends and living without family for the first time can be very hard. And that is okay. Kids usually survive the difficulty and discomfort; most grow dramatically because of it.

Tempted to go visit? Bring them home for a weekend?

Think twice before rescuing college students from the difficult emotions that they are facing (anxiety, homesickness, loneliness, etc.). Although their pain often becomes our pain, and we want to do anything that we can to eliminate it, we can actually prolong their pain when we don’t let them struggle through it. Kids learn three things when we try to take away their pain and discomfort:

1) It must be really awful to feel difficult things (i.e., homesickness). This isn’t true. Life is full of difficult emotions; most pass uneventfully. Difficult emotions are not necessarily traumatic, scarring, unnatural—or even to be avoided.

2) They must not be able to handle their difficult emotions on their own. This probably is true if they’ve never handled them independently in the past. Kids who always have problems solved for them don’t know how to solve problems themselves.

3) They are entitled to a life free from pain or difficulty. This is a pernicious (if unconscious) learned belief. No one is entitled to a life free from adversity. Kids need to learn to tolerate uncomfortable transitions, challenges, boredom and the like because life is full of them.

What to do instead of trying to rescue them

Instead of trying to mask or take away kids’ pain, we can help them feel more comfortable with discomfort by encouraging them to ACCEPT their difficult feelings. Here are four ways to do that.

1. Recognize that their emotions are real—then coach them through them. The key is not to deny what they are feeling (e.g., saying something like, “But you have so many new friends!” when they say they are lonely). Instead, encourage kids to lean into their feelings, even if they are painful. Ask them to narrate what they are going through, without exaggerating or sugar-coating it. “I’m feeling anxious right now,” they might say, or “I’m not sure why I feel stressed and nervous.” Encourage them to hang in there with unpleasant emotions. See if they can objectify their feelings. Ask, “Where in your body do you feel anxious/lonely/homesick/sad? Does the feeling have a color? A texture? A shape?”

2. Don’t encourage kids to distract themselves from their difficult emotions before they’ve acknowledged them. Leaning on numbing behaviors (drinking, going home, spending hours on Facebook, eating junk food) tends to prolong both the transition and the difficult emotions.

3. Practice self-compassion and kindness. Research shows that college students who are kind to themselves and accept that their difficult feelings are part of the universal experience of leaving home fare better than those who are critical of themselves. Self-compassionate students are less prone to homesickness and depression, and they tend to be more satisfied with their social lives and choice of college.

4. Finally, encourage kids not to compare themselves to other people! Everyone makes transitions differently. If they spend time on Facebook, they will likely end up feeling like everyone else is having more fun than them. I’ve never seen anyone post a selfie on FB or Instagram looking miserable with the update “I spent the last hour crying because I miss my mom so much.” Remind kids that social media is, for most people, a giant performance where they posture to make themselves look better than they actually feel.

A word of caution: While it’s important to let college kids know they can rely on their own inner capacities and family support to get through tough times, it’s also important to let them know that reaching out for help is appropriate—especially if they have any suicidal thoughts and incapacitating depression or anxiety.   If the situation seems intractable, parents should consider encouraging kids to seek mental health services through their college health department or the National Lifeline (1-800-273-TALK).

While it’s true that a happy life comes from positive emotions, it also comes from resilience—from having the tools we need to cope with life’s inevitable difficulties and painful moments. Like it or not, we tend to develop the skills we need to cope with homesickness only when we need them: when we’re away from home for the first time.


One comment

  1. MarkM3 says:

    It’s interesting that your article describes very well an experience that I had—but not from college. 😉

    I actually didn’t have much problem adjusting to college. In fact, I felt as free as a bird being away from home. On the other hand, I’d had a very painful experience the year before. At the end of my junior year in high school, I got selected to attend Governor’s Honors, an intense six-week program for high-school students held at a college about five hours away. The major difference here is that in college, you have a lot more privacy. So, if you don’t have a lot of friends at college and are sort of a nerd, nobody will pay that much attention—at least at a large university like where I attended. On the other hand, in the Governor’s Honors program, there were only about 600 students. And every single thing you did was closely monitored, including your bedtime (you had to be inside your dorm by 10:30 p.m., and in bed with the lights out by 11:30 p.m.). You also couldn’t leave campus, except for a couple of hours on the weekend.

    Anyway, at that point in my life, attending Governor’s Honors was the most stressful thing I’d ever gone through. Or at least the first week of the program was. I didn’t know anybody else there, and felt totally lost. I also couldn’t find anyone there that I “clicked” with. Even worse, it felt like everyone else was having a grand ol’ time, making lots of friends, while I was just a hopeless freak who couldn’t connect with anyone. Every social encounter seemed to confirm my worst fears—that I truly was defective. I kept asking myself, “What’s wrong with me???” It felt like I’d fallen into a black hole, and would never come out of it. And I was so full of anxiety that it was difficult to sleep. By the end of the first week, I was starting to have serious thoughts of suicide.

    However, shortly before the first week concluded, I ended up meeting a guy named David in the library. Somehow, we just seemed to hit it off as friends. That was the first ray of light I encountered in what had seemed like a totally hopeless week. And in the next few days, he and I had more interaction, and I finally started to feel like maybe somehow I could make it through this hellish experience. The second week was still difficult, but things slowly but surely were improving. And although I can’t remember all the details, since it was so long ago, by the middle of the third week, I think I was actually starting to enjoy myself—at least part of the time.

    To make a long story short, by the time the six weeks ended, I was having so much fun that I didn’t want to go home! 🙂 And then when I finally did go home, it was another difficult adjustment—and I ended up getting depressed all over again. 😹

    Anyway, my experience confirms what you wrote here:

    Here’s the thing: It is totally normal for this major transition to be VERY DIFFICULT, especially if you’ve never been on your own before. Navigating making friends and living without family for the first time can be very hard. And that is okay. Kids usually survive the difficulty and discomfort; most grow dramatically because of it.

    Looking back, as difficult as it was, I’m glad I had to go through that experience, and I did grow dramatically because of it. Of course, if such a situation seems “intractable,” as you put it, a student always has the option to quit the program and go home, but I’m glad I didn’t have to do that. Actually, I had a friend in college who told me that one of her roommates (from another state) had also had a difficult experience at their summer “governor’s school,” and decided to leave the program after only three weeks. So, sometimes a student may need to quit such a program if it’s just too stressful for them. But in my case, it was definitely the right decision to stay, and I learned a ton of things from my overall experience there. In a nutshell, I’m glad that nobody “rescued” me from having to go through that ordeal.

    And compared with the painful experience I’d had the year before adjusting to the Governor’s Honors program, starting college itself was almost a breeze. 😆 More than likely, some of the resilience I acquired the previous year played a part in that.

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