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7 Tips for Parents to Support their Overwhelmed or Lonely College Freshman

With the start of the new school year, college freshmen are facing one of the greatest transitions they have ever experienced. While the students are struggling to find their new normal, parents are left at home worried.

If, or when, the meltdown call arrives from your student it is easy to panic and wonder if this was the right decision. Perhaps they should not have gone off to college? Perhaps living at home would have been the wiser choice?

It is common, and quite normal, for a college freshman to feel lost and overwhelmed the first few weeks of college. They may feel that classes are too big, they have no friends, the food is terrible or the lines in the dining hall are too long. They are overwhelmed, lonely and miserable.

For neurodivergent students, these feelings are often even more pronounced as the student might have a past of feeling like they don’t belong or of struggling to keep up academically and socially. The overwhelm is real - but not unusual!

What is important as a parent is to not panic! So, what can you do to help your student?

Tip 1: Don’t Panic

Take a deep breath, keep a positive attitude and remember that college is a step towards the independence that your student was looking forward to. Your response to their overwhelm sends an important message.

Tip 2: Listen

It is possible that your student just wants to vent and be heard. Sometimes just expressing how they feel can make them feel better. Empathize and let them know that you understand and don’t minimize what they are telling you.

Tip 3: Identify the problem

What is your student telling you? Is there a specific problem? Perhaps they are having difficulties with their roommate or with the lines in the dining hall, or perhaps they are having difficulties making friends.

Tip 4: Ask questions

Ask your student what could be done to make the situation better. They may have some good ideas themselves and be able to talk it through with you. Ask them what you can do to best support them. If your student is ready to accept your suggestions and advice, do so!

Tip 5: Give advice and give space

If your student wants your advice, offer it to them in a gentle and accepting way. If they have trouble making friends, offer suggestions for where and how they can meet people. If they are academically overwhelmed, encourage them to seek academic support and to register with the learning disabilities office if that is appropriate for them. Regardless of the problem, help your student come up with an action plan of a couple of things that they can do right after hanging up the phone. Then, suggest that they sleep on it!

Tip 6: Encourage and Support

If your student wants to call it quits and drop out, encourage them to just finish this semester, but acknowledge that it feels difficult at the moment. Make sure they know that they are not stuck for four years. If things don’t improve, transferring or coming home could be an option. However, suggest that they try to stick it out for a few more weeks. Often, things will improve as they get used to the new environment and make a couple of friends.

Tip 7: Know your child and listen to your gut

If you are a parent of a neurodivergent student, you know your student and when it is time to step in more actively to support them. Studies have shown that the right kind of “helicopter parenting” is the most helpful when supporting students. The happy medium lies between “hands-off” and “controlling”, and is facilitating in nature. By providing guidance and encouragement for your teen to take responsibility to develop independent skills, you can help your student build confidence.

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The adjustment to college is hard for both students and parents. Give yourself and your student grace. This is the first step in your student separating from you and growing into an independent adult. It is a normal, but difficult process.

And, don’t forget, soon enough Thanksgiving and winter break are here and you will have your student home again!


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