Updated: Jan 7
There are a myriad of reasons why college students might struggle. After finishing a tough semester or maybe a difficult year it can be overwhelming for your student to think about returning to campus. Academic difficulty can definitely take its toll on your student’s emotional and physical health. How can you help your young adult be resilient and step back into a situation that was previously hard for them?
Here are 4 tips to help your student return to campus with confidence and create a plan for how to weather the tough times - should they happen again.
WHY STUDENTS STRUGGLE
Movies about the college years often show teenagers partying, making new friends and having the time of their lives. While this can be true for many students, not all students have this experience. The less talked about reality of college is that it can be extremely isolating for students who struggle making friends; the academic rigor can be overwhelming; and the responsibility of managing and balancing classes, friends and living independently can cause havoc as well as feelings of anxiety and depression.
Despite students’ best efforts, college can be hard. No one WANTS to struggle. Falling behind in classes isn’t fun. Revealing your struggles to your parents and family members adds another layer of embarrassment. Students have shared with me that they often keep their struggles to themselves because revealing their difficulties at college feels like they are failing and letting their parents down.
1. Offer Confidence & Reassurance
First and foremost, your teens are excellent at ‘reading the room.’ They often predict how you will react before you do it, so if your teen thinks you will be upset they are less likely to share. Why do I mention this? Because if your teen knows that you are open and non-judgmental in all types of situations then they will be more likely to listen when you encourage and praise them.
Returning to college after a difficult semester is all about self-esteem, confidence and ‘getting back on the bicycle after falling off.’
I don’t know about you, but my parents encouraged me to keep trying when at first I didn’t succeed. Returning to college (literally or virtually) can be scary. Our teens need extra confidence building during the months leading up to their return to college. Remind your teen that they have done hard things before. Remind them that life is full of hard times and they have survived every one of them so far.
2. ACKNOWLEDGE THEIR FEAR
Validating your students’ feelings and apprehension is crucial to creating a foundation for building their confidence. Students need to feel heard before they will listen to your praise and/or accept your advice. I recommend conversation starters such as this:
“Let’s talk about your experience at college last semester. I know it was really difficult for you. What do you think about when you think about last semester? (If the answer is negative, you can try this) I want to help you reframe the way you thought about last semester. I know it was really tough, but I saw that you learned __________. ”
“College is only a few weeks away. I’d like to help you feel prepared and ready to be successful for this year. Is there anything you needed last semester that I can give you before you start this semester?
Each of these conversation starters lets your teen know that you understand their previous experience was tough.
Having a conversation that starts right away with a statement of understanding will help your teen be more open to the rest of your conversation.
3. OFFER STRATEGIES & TOOLS TO DEPERSONALIZE FAILURE
All of us, parents too, are sensitive to making mistakes. It feels awful when we know that we made a mistake, or even worse, made a mistake that has jeopardized being on an NCAA athletic team, created conflict with our roommate, put your student on academic probation or disappointed their parents.
Students bear the weight of a difficult semester long after the semester is over.
Even if your teen isn’t showing it or talking about it, I guarantee you that they are thinking about their mistakes and reliving where and how the semester went wrong. For teens who may have needed to leave campus for a medical or mental health reason, ongoing treatment with mental health providers can be constant reminders of previous decisions they made or past struggles.
Your teen feels responsible for their difficult semester and this can lead to thoughts such as “I can’t do college” or “I’m never going to be able to be successful.”
As an executive functioning coach working with college students, one of the most important mindset tools I offer in the beginning of meetings is reassuring students that difficulty isn’t personal. Difficulty is a result of not having the right tools. Separating the student from their failure is so important.
For example, I can’t play the violin because no one has taught me how to play and I haven’t practiced. It’s not because I’m a bad person or I’m inherently lacking skills. If I have the right teacher, know HOW to practice and practice with tools, then I will most likely be successful.
If your students don’t have the tools, or even have the tools but don’t know HOW and WHEN to use them, failure is possible. Reassuring students that they are capable, but might need tools and strategies outside of themselves increases their self-esteem and confidence. This article offers some great suggestions for helping your student develop time management and organization skills needed at college. This Post-It wall calendar and this 15 pack of colored Post-it Notes is one of my most recommended tools that keep college students organized.
4. MAKE A PLAN
Sometimes we resist situations that we think will be out of our control. Or we don’t want to return to a situation that has the possibility of spiraling out of control. Difficult college semesters can feel like this. When students ignore their personal red flags and continue through a semester where they are struggling, things can go from bad to worse pretty quickly. Missed assignments can turn into failing grade which creates low self-esteem, helplessness and then students give up altogether.
Catching red flags early is important. Having a plan is even more important.
Use the days and weeks before a semester to have your student research supports listed on their campus website. Make a list of contact names, emails, and building locations of important offices such as: residence life, student affairs, disability support office, counseling or health center, academic advising, etc.
Next, ask your student to identify HOW they will know they are struggling. What are their personal red flags that indicate to themselves that they are starting to feel overwhelmed? Do they start missing classes? Sleeping all weekend? Not feeling hungry? Cancelling phone calls or activities with friends? Not responding to texts from family?
Creating a list that they can share with you will make everyone aware of potential difficulties when they first start happening, before the spiral. Creating this list also encourages your student to use metacognitive skills, an important executive functioning skill. Reflecting on their own thinking and actions in difficult times - BEFORE the difficult times - and making a plan is so important.
WHAT IF THEY JUST DON’T WANT TO GO BACK
Even after trying these strategies and having calm, open conversations with your teen, they still may not feel ready to return to college. This is ok. Often it is our own will or pushing our students back to ‘the college plan’ that makes parents uncomfortable when our teen says ‘I just don’t want to go back.’ Sometimes we might encourage our students to go back to campus because WE haven’t thought about a plan B if they don’t go back.
I would challenge you think about your student’s hesitation as an opportunity.
If your student feels uncomfortable returning to college, what will they be expected to do instead? Setting boundaries and expectations is important. Will you expect your teen to work? Will you expect them to take at least 1 class online to bolster their skills with support from a tutor or executive functioning coach? Will they be expected to meet with a therapist weekly?
After a difficult semester your teen still may have unresolved issues that need professional support. Parents, it’s completely normal to feel ‘out of your league’ when your teen struggles. The strategies above will help you prepare your teen to return to college, but if you feel like you need more guidance, I encourage you to seek out professional clinicians or other parents whose teens have struggled too. For every teen who has struggled at college, there is a parent of that teen who 'gets it' and might have wisdom to share. You might even be that parent someday too.