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Transitioning to College: Parents Can Help Ease the Process

As many parents can attest, senior year of high school is a cauldron of emotions. Excitement and fear coexist during this busy transition from interdependence to independence, especially for those planning on attending college.

But some kids are better equipped to handle these juxtaposing emotions than others, which is why the Jed Foundation, an organization that works to prevent suicide in college-age students, partnered with the American Psychiatric Association to launch Transition Year. The goal of Transition Year is to educate parents on the disturbing realities of college-age mental health and provide tools to help them focus on their child’s emotional health before, during and after the college transition.

According to the latest statistics from the National Mental Health Association and the Jed Foundation, suicide is the second leading cause of death among this age group. Yet, a recent study from the foundation shows that not only are parents of college-age students uncomfortable talking with their children about mental health than any other health topic — including alcohol, drugs and sex — they are even less comfortable discussing suicidal thoughts.

So, if students are stressed or depressed and parents are uncomfortable confronting the issue, where do you begin? Get to the root of the problem, says Courtney Knowles, executive director of the Jed Foundation. And that problem, he tells ParentDish, is a lack of awareness among parents about how important it is to rank a child’s emotional health as highly as their academic and social considerations throughout the college selection process. “If you look at the data from students that asks them what interferes with their ability to do well at school, almost all of the top reasons are related to emotional health,” Knowles tells ParentDish. “It’s clear that issues like stress and anxiety and depression can severely impact a student’s ability to acclimate and meet the academic demands of school.”

Parents are advised to look out for the warning signs of severe depression and suicidal behavior, including insomnia, mood swings and drinking too much, all of which could easily be any student’s reaction to the normal pressures of college. Parents need to be able to discern when those symptoms might indicate something more serious than typical college angst, Knowles says. And, he admits, it’s a very fine line. “I think the real defining point is to what degree is the emotional state, whether it be anxiety or stress or depression, interfering with their inability to get stuff done, to get out, go see friends,” Knowles says. “I really think that’s the easiest way to tell the difference.” But this is not an easy task, as college mental health professionals say they are seeing more and more students with an inability to cope with the regular stresses of college life, says Morton Silverman, M.D., senior adviser to the Suicide Prevention Resource Center and senior medical advisor to the Jed Foundation.”Because of (students’) reliance on electronic communication and helicopter parenting, they have had little experience with situations where they would practice and learn how to deal with conflict or adversity, and the negotiations that go along with that,” Silverman tells ParentDish in an email. “Helicopter parenting can also impact problem-solving skills in that they have relied on parents to help make decisions and solve problems.” Knowles agrees.”Everyone seems surprised when there’s a meltdown and an inability to get things done,” he says.

According to a report in The New York Times, college officials are saying many freshmen don’t know how to negotiate problems and are texting in lieu of talking when trying to resolve normal roommate conflicts. “Over the past five years, roommate conflicts have intensified,” Norbert Kunkel, director of housing and residence education at the University of Florida, tells the newspaper. “The students don’t have the person-to-person discussions and they don’t know how to handle them.” A college official at the University of California, Los Angeles, tells The Times students don’t engage in mediation so much as avoidance. And avoidance often leads to escalation. If parents equip their children with coping mechanisms and stress management skills, Knowles says, they’ll ensure a much better college experience for their offspring. “You can have two different students with the same genetic predisposition for depression who handle things entirely different and one can find themselves hospitalized and the other can find themselves able to manage,” he says. “So the choices you make and how you cope with things is huge.” Coping skills can include exercises such as deep breathing, yoga and meditation. “A college student should know how to identify a problem and reach out for help,” Knowles says. “Whether that problem be ‘I’m not managing my finances well and need to reach out to the financial aid office,’ or that problem be ‘I’m falling behind academically and I need to reach out to my academic adviser or the tutoring system.’ ”

Knowles compares depression and other mental health issues to an illness such as diabetes. “You’re not just ‘sick or well,’ it’s the decisions you make and how you deal with things that can really impact the way and what degree that illness interferes with your life,” he says. If there’s one message Knowles wants parents to take away from the Transition Year site, it’s this: “I want parents to realize that college is just as much an emotional transition as it is an educational experience. And to think about that. To plan for that. To keep it in mind throughout the process; when you’re selecting a college, when you’re planning the transition, and then when you’re communicating and acclimating.”

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The World Health Organization defines “mental health” “as a state of well-being in which every individual realizes his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to her or his community.” In using this definition, S2i recognizes that some mental health challenges reflect brain diseases that, like physical diseases, require appropriate stigma-free and patient-centered care and include both mental health and substance use disorders. Other mental health challenges stem from social conditions and marginalization and require different forms of interventions.