For college students, the last few weeks of the semester are a mix of vacation anticipation, graduation logistics, part-time job or internship arrangements, and preparation for finals. We parents hope our students have set themselves up for a strong semester finish, but it's just as likely that the increased stress at semester's end is creating difficulties for them. How can we help?
Because time management and organization skills are so severely tested at these times of the school year, student anxiety and self-doubt escalate. Campus-wide, I hear stressed-out students express low confidence with comments like, “I should have gotten this done earlier,” or, “I can’t do it,” or, “Haven’t been to class,” and the perennial, “There’s no way I can pass.” Students who would benefit most by maintaining or increasing proactive healthy activity (e.g., exercise, sleep) instead obsess about "not having enough time!" and decrease their stress management--which exacerbates the problem.
Many students wisely seek out campus resources out for the first time, looking for help coping with perceived crises. But, more often, they'll miss or cancel ongoing appointments with counselors, advisors, and other helpful campus resources, and eventually seek a Medical Leave of Absence (“MLOA”) or petition for a course withdrawal.
Late semester difficulties are actually prime opportunities to develop and practice new coping skills. Since our students are no longer under our direct care, how can we help them navigate and learn from the challenges of life without being overbearing and controlling?
The good news is that less is more in this aspect of parenting. Our students learn better when they're allowed to face their biggest challenges without much direct interference from us. Here are five valuable lessons we can teach our kids by giving them the space they need to grow on their own:
1. In the midst of struggle is opportunity. Always. Every time. Resiliency (the ability to bounce back from adversity), self-confidence (belief in our worth and likelihood of succeeding), and self-efficacy (belief that we can successfully perform specific tasks) are critical skills for college students to develop. Young adults evolve best when allowed to do so on their own. We can facilitate that growth by reframing stressful circumstances as opportunities, helping identify constructive possibilities, and reminding our kids of similar situations in which they persevered and thrived.
2. Support your strengths, downplay limitations. Our students' natural inclination, in times of stress and struggle, is to conclude that their level of anxiety is greater than their capacity to resolve it. This compels them to ignore their strengths. They'll latch onto and try to fix their weaknesses. Remind your student of their positive attributes and the things you most love about them, and watch their confidence begin to return. They have a lifetime to work on their limitations; for now, focusing on their strengths gives them more strength.
3. Listening is more effective than advising. Our tendency as parents is to advise our children, fix their problems, tell them what to do. Our students' default position is often resistance to our intervention--perceived as controlling or meddling. Since college life is a chance to develop confidence, and to practice problem solving and decision making, don't immediately advise your student (even if they're asking for it). Listen carefully. Perhaps you could share your own experience in a similar situation, if you have it. Try saying, "I'm not sure what you should do," and ask questions that challenge them to determine for themselves the best way to handle the problem. These listening times are often great, teachable moments for parents, and they model for young adults how to be an effective listener.
4. Lean into problems! It's a human trait to avoid difficulties and maintain the status quo, even if it's unpleasant. When confronted with anxiety and stress, a student's common response is to avoid actions that could actually prove beneficial to them.
For example, students often choose to avoid scheduling consultations with a professor in whose class they're not performing well. Encourage yours to think beyond their performance in the course to the benefit of developing assertiveness, and to schedule a talk with the professor. Let your child know that you support them no matter what, and that they have all the resources they need to solve any problem that arises--as long as they face it.
5. Maintain the healthiest lifestyle possible under the circumstances. Healthy eating, exercise, and proper sleep are often difficult during the final weeks of the semester. It's easy for students to become all-or-nothing about self-care, but effective stress management is even more important at this time of year. Operate on the principle that something is better than nothing. If your student is telling you they aren't able to eat, sleep, and exercise the way they normally do, challenge them to figure out alternatives. If they feel they can't do their typical 1/2 hour run, for example, could they study on an exercise bike, instead? And remember to practice and model the healthiest lifestyle you can yourself!
Dr. Joel Ingersoll helps college and high school students develop college transition, performance, and career success skills. As president & founder of Take On College, Joel has empowered thousands of students to maximize their potential, college experience and return on tuition. Joel is the author of the forthcoming book Take On College: Winning Strategies for College & Career Success!