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David Baxter PhD

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Top 5 signs your child is struggling in college
September 17, 2007

College can be a stressful time for young adults as they learn to navigate the world with new responsibilities, new friends and unfamiliar independence.

"The first few months of college in particular can be tough," says psychiatrist Edward Poa, MD, medical director of The Menninger Clinic's Compass Young Adult Program, which treats adults ages 18 to 30. "For many people it is their first time outside the structure of their home. They have to learn how to manage their own schedules and take care of themselves, shop for themselves and manage a budget. On top of that, they have also lost their usual high school support network. They have to build a new social support network from scratch."

Students who don't cope well with the challenges of the college environment and new stressors may be more at risk for substance abuse, eating disorders, abusive relationships and depression.

According to a 2004 survey by the American College Health Association, nearly half of all college students report feeling so depressed at some point in time that they have trouble functioning, and 14.9 percent meet the criteria for clinical depression. This marks an increase of 4.6 percent in the number of students who reported having ever been diagnosed with depression over a four-year time span. Young people ages 18 to 25 also have the highest prevalence of binge and heavy drinking, according to the 2001 National Household Survey on Drug Abuse.

Parents can help their children on their journey through college, Dr. Poa says, by being mindful of times when their child is confronting the most change, such as the beginning of their child's first year of college, exam times, sorority or fraternity rush, and, if their child is an athlete, the start of their sport's season.

Being mindful doesn't mean being intrusive in your child's life, emphasizes Dr. Poa. "College is a time when young adults try out new things, so parents shouldn't overreact to every change in their child and check up on him or her constantly, but be aware of drastic change. Continue being a parent. Listen and make yourself available to talk."

Your child may be struggling in college if:

  • He suddenly changes his habits or mood. Rapid, unexpected change may signal adjustment problems. For example, your child usually calls on a regular basis, and then stops calling. Or he or she may start to call more often and seem more distressed or lonely. Or on a visit to your child's college, you notice that he or she dresses dramatically different or hasn't bathed.

    "Any major change in your child's behavior, such as how he or she talks or acts is something to look out for," Dr. Poa says.
  • She starts making poor grades. Declining grades and frequent withdrawals from courses may indicate that your child's focus is somewhere other than classes.
  • He needs money. While it is normal for college kids to hit their parents up for money, be wary if your child is asking for more money than usual, or asking for money more frequently.

    "Your child could be going out quite a lot, or spending it on alcohol or drugs," Dr. Poa says. "We are also seeing more patients with gambling addictions, so they could be spending the money to feed their gambling or pay off their debts. Job loss may also indicate a need for concern if you notice other changes."
  • She is never available (or reachable). If you never seem to reach your child on the phone, he or she may have an active social life or may be spending too much time partying. Also be wary if your child spends all of his or her time at a new boyfriend or girlfriend's house, and stops spending time with family, roommates and friends.
  • He never leaves home. Many college students keep erratic schedules and like to sleep in on the weekends after a night out. But if your child seems to be asleep or just waking up every time you call, you may want to ask why. He or she could be sleeping off the effects of drug and alcohol abuse. Excessive sleep is also a sign of depression.
With support from their parents and friends, most young adults will meet the challenges of college and learn from them. If concerns persist for two weeks to a month, getting a professional opinion is important to getting the student back on track. However, seek immediate help from a mental health professional if your child has suicidal thoughts or profound depression.

Most colleges have counseling centers available to students and these centers are good places for your student to be assessed and treated. For students struggling with substance abuse or addiction, 12-step programs geared to college-aged individuals are often available within the vicinity of a college.
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