Family, Kids & Relationships

How to help prepare teens and young adults for the stresses of college — even if you’ve never been

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It’s tempting to think that once kids have “made it” to college, they’ll be just fine. However, while starting college is a significant milestone to be celebrated, it can also be a challenging and stressful time in a young adult’s life.

The stress and pressure to succeed can be too much for some: about 24 percent of first-time, full-time undergraduate first-year students dropped out between 2015 and 2020. And a 2021 study by the American College Health Association showed that 48 percent of college students were under moderate or severe psychological stress, 53 percent were lonely, and one in four had considered suicide. 

Even for high school students or recent graduates who seem to be thriving in terms of academics, extracurricular activities, and their social lives, college is still likely to be a culture shock. College students are expected to be self-organized in almost every aspect of their schooling and personal lives. And since teachers and administrators are less likely to get to know students on a personal level, and high-achieving peers can seem intimidating, new students can easily feel lost in the mix.

For first-generation college students, low-income students, Black and Indigenous students, LGBTQ+ students, or students who are caring for family members, the compounding stressors are more likely to lead to college dropout or depression.

To help counteract these challenges, preparation for the college years can start well before it’s time to go to college. But being prepared is certainly not all about academics. The academic pressures of college can be overwhelming — but if your child has a solid support system in place, some mental health tools at the ready, and the ability to manage the more practical matters of life, then they are in an ideal place to navigate that type of stress.

Here are some of the top ways you can help prepare your college-bound teen or young adult for what’s to come.

Prepare ahead of time for the stress

Set aside time to focus on practical life skills, such as laundry, debit card management, and easy-to-prepare meals. With the academic stresses students are under, basic self-care tasks often fall to the wayside, especially if they’re not confident in those skills to begin with. See this list of life skills for more ideas.

Encourage a growth mindset — the idea that they can always learn and grow from mistakes and challenges. Research shows that college students who used a narrative of personal growth when discussing the mental health challenges of the pandemic were more likely to have positive outcomes — no matter how many stressors they experienced. Here are some growth mindset activities to try.

Let your child know that it’s typical for some semesters of college to be more stressful than others, depending on which classes or other responsibilities they have — and that there will be time periods, like during final exams, when their academic stress might be higher than ever.

Help them plan ahead for coping with stress by starting a conversation about what some of their go-to stress relievers and coping strategies are. Give examples from your own life, such as when you took a walk to admire the sunset after an extra stressful day of work or childcare.

Know where they can go for help

Research the student support resources that their college (or the colleges they are considering) will have available, such as: faculty advisors, peer mentoring, tutoring services and writing centers, mental health services or hotlines, scholarship offices, peer groups for first-generation college students or LGBTQ+ students, etc.

Even if your child doesn’t think they will ever need certain types of support, encourage them to get familiar before school starts and to keep a list of resources on hand to help their friends (and themselves). This list should include a mental health or crisis hotline, even if it’s not specific to the college they’re attending.

Make sure your student knows about the wealth of resources available at the campus library — such as free access to books they may need for classes, laptops and other devices on loan, online tools and media, and reference librarians whom you can ask for tips when researching for a paper or project.

If financial stress will be a significant factor for your family, check out this list of resources for low-income college students, which includes ideas on covering everything from textbooks to meals to tuition. Review it together with your college-bound student, and decide which financial situations you can prepare for ahead of time.

Assure kids that while they will be managing a lot independently, they don’t have to go it alone. Whether you have any college experience or not, you can tell kids about a difficult time in your life when you’ve asked for help, or wish you had asked for help.

Discuss the unique culture and expectations of college

If you have been to college yourself, recount some specific stories that illustrate challenges you went through — this will hit home much more than an abstract lecture will. If you don’t have college experience of your own to draw from, try to connect your child with a family member, teacher, or someone in the community who does.

Manage your and your child’s expectations about college. Just because they’ve made it there doesn’t mean they have it all figured out. They’re allowed to make mistakes, and learn from those mistakes.

You can even talk directly about college dropout rates, particularly for first-year students who don’t feel supported. Let them know that they can always come to you with any academic, social, financial, physical or mental health, or other problems — and that you can offer moral support, help brainstorm solutions, or just a listening ear.

How involved should parents be in a college student’s life?

Once they’re in college, children can still benefit from some form of support from parents, but that support will look a lot different than it did when kids were younger and less independent. Young adults won’t benefit from you monitoring their every move and checking in about every assignment — in fact, that level of involvement can be detrimental to their mental health and ability to thrive in school and in their social lives.

Check in with your college student every few days or weeks, but don’t grill them on their classes or try to get involved in their daily interactions with friends, professors, or administrators. Try more hands-off ways to show your support:

  • Ask if there’s anything you can do to help them through a hard semester, like sending a package of to-go breakfast foods or a gift card to the smoothie shop near campus.
  • If they’ve told you about a stressful exam coming up, feel free to give some encouragement, like texting a couple of “you got this” GIFs throughout the week — but don’t keep bugging them about how the studying is going.
  • Offer to make them a special meal at home, take them out for dinner, or to share another special treat or outing after they’ve made it through a tough push.
  • If you’re not sure whether you’ve been communicating too much or too little with your college student, simply ask how they feel about it!

Dealing with school closures, childcare issues, or other challenges related to coronavirus? Find support, advice, activities to keep kids entertained, learning opportunities and more in our Coronavirus Parents: Parenting in a Pandemic Facebook Group.

For ongoing updates on coronavirus-related issues and questions that impact children and families, please find additional resources here.




Joanna Eng is a freelance writer and editor, Lambda Literary Fellow, and co-founder of Dandelions, a parenting and social justice newsletter. She lives with her wife and child in the New York City area, where she is constantly seeking out slivers of nature. You can find her on Twitter @joannamengland.