My anxious child is away at college: how can I help from here?

Recent reports have shed light on some sobering statistics:


  • 60% of today’s college students suffer from sort of psychological distress, including generalized anxiety disorder.
  • Half of all surveyed college students have felt some kind of anxiety at least once in the last 12 months
  • 20% of college students say that they’re stressed ‘most of the time’
  • 80% of college students say they sometimes, or often, feel stressed
  • 34% of college say they’ve felt depressed at least once over the last three months
  • 10% of college students have had thoughts of suicide


Maria, a recently retired director of recreational services, isn’t surprised by these numbers. Her daughter, Alana, is 19 and has gone back to college to complete her sophomore year after a summer at home. Alana was diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder when she was 16.


“I really shouldn’t speak for anyone else, but I’ve watched my daughter live in a near-constant state of anxiety since she was probably 13, and I don’t think the things she worries about are unique to her,” muses Maria. “At first blush, when you hear about it, it’s all stuff that you’d say, ‘Oh, yeah, I get that.’ It’s about relationships, physical appearance, keeping up with girlfriends in terms of material things or you know, who has the best hair… and it gets to more serious stuff, like getting a great GPA and getting into the right school and really just trying to figure out how to bridge this moment of adolescence and adulthood.


“I think sometimes, as adults, we tend to dismiss the concerns of our children and think of it as, ‘You think you’ve got problems now? Wait until you get to be my age!’ But that gets dangerous, because if you’re belittling or even taking lightly what might be, for your child, a serious concern, you run the risk of leaving them feeling neglected, or scared, or even more anxious than they are now. It can be more than they can handle.”


No one can pinpoint exactly what’s caused this great escalation of anxiety in students today, although some guess that it might be caused by the media’s seemingly never-ending spotlight on political division, or a global economy that’s never been more unstable than now. But how is it, then, that anxiety didn’t seem to be an epidemic during some of recent history’s most challenging of times, like the Great Depression or the Second World War?


Is something wrong with this generation? Is it that they’re just ill-equipped to handle difficulty? Have they gone ‘soft?’


Research says no. In March 2019, Psychology Today published three research-backed reasons that college students are more stressed out and anxious than ever before.


One cultural change is a definite increase in the value of material goods, and how much weight we give to financial success. In the 1960s, college students valued the ability to develop a meaningful philosophy of life; today, college students value being financially well off, according to research by the Cooperative Institutional Research Program at UCLA. This is an alarming discovery, because mental health professionals have long linked materialism and extrinsic desires to be connected to mental health issues, including depression, anxiety and other psychological illnesses. How to work through debilitating depression.


“I’m not about to paint all kids with the same brush, but in Alana’s case, yeah, I see the kids feeding off each other,” shares Maria. “It starts young – it starts with, ‘Well, so-and-so in 6th grade had the newest smartphone,’ and soon everyone needs that same phone or better. The older they got, the more they desired what their friends had, in terms of material things, items.


“Over time, that becomes the goal. ‘I want to be so well off I can buy whatever I want to buy.’”


The second cultural change, studies have found, is the increasing cost to attend school. It wasn’t too long ago that state and federal grants funded kids heading to school, so that anyone who was smart enough and motivated enough to want to go to college could go. But in the later part of the 20th century, post-secondary education fees skyrocketed, with private, four-year colleges charging upward of $50,000 a year or more.


Alana worked hard in high school, and was the recipient of several scholarships that alleviated the costs by a decent amount. Maria says she and her husband put away money the minute Alana was born up until the day she graduated, so that they could assist Alana with school and not leave her burdened with loans so early in life. But Maria recognizes not everyone agrees with this part of her parenting.


“Some parents have a better ability to sock money away than others. We did what we could but it still isn’t enough to cover all four years. Some parents are judged for not doing the same for their children, but we’re being judged for helping our daughter out. We’re told we’re babying her, and that college tuition should be the student’s responsibility and theirs alone.


“One of my husband’s friends told him that we were stunting Alana’s growth by taking away the experience of getting a loan for school and working to the bone to pay it off.”


While it sounds harsh, some experts do warn parents of permitting their children to remain financially (and emotionally) dependent on them; this kind of dependency seems to contribute to the college student’s anxiety because they feel unprepared and untrained for adulthood.


This ‘delayed adulthood’ is the third cultural change reported by Psychology Today; psychologist James Arnett said that while earlier generations learned how to make decisions on their own, thus designing, creating and maintaining their own adult lives, many college students today have chosen to remain in pre-adulthood, counting on their parents to pay bills, do their laundry, and kiss their tears away.


It doesn’t sound so cruel, does it? The idea of loving, supportive parents who just want to be there for their kids? But allowing young adults to remain in a state of childhood, so to speak, is actually damaging, experts warn – it doesn’t allow them the opportunity to face and overcome stress and difficulty in early adulthood, which will leave them vulnerable to more serious events in the future.


What can I suggest to my anxious child? I don’t want to be a helicopter parent. I really do want what’s best for them.


While your anxious child is away at college, it will be tempting to call every day and check in. (In more extreme cases, you may even be tempted to suggest that they move back home!) A better idea is to support your child from a distance, allowing them to grow and learn on their own, but still providing them with tools and techniques to move through life – and those anxious moments – with grace and in good mental health.


Your anxious child, away at college, may be feeling the weight of one or several stressful events or circumstances. It may be academic concerns. Your child may have trouble with weight management. Your child may be worried about finances. Your child may have depression, anxiety or another mental health disorder. Your child may have developed a substance abuse disorder. Advise your child that no matter the issue, all schools have available resources for assistance. There are student health services and centers, academic counseling services, financial aid officers, and even anonymous or online therapy.


Regardless of the source of stress, here are five tips you can suggest to your child to alleviate any kind of anxiety.


Think positively. Don’t dismiss this as some new age, Facebook-feed nonsense. Studies have actually proven that thinking positively improves a person’s physical and emotional health. It has the power to minimize those sad, anxious feelings, and over time, the practice of thinking good thoughts has the power to blast away stress.


Talk to someone. There’s power in conversation. If your child is unable or unwilling to talk to a professional, encourage them to stay in contact with good, positive friends or family members. No one ever wants to feel alone, and definitely not in times of anxiety or distress. Sometimes, just talking to someone – even if it isn’t about your current problems – lifts those bad feelings and takes them away. Learn about the common myths about therapy.


Meditate, or learn some other relaxation techniques. Meditation and mindfulness go a long way in alleviating anxiety. Tell your child it doesn’t mean he or she has to get in a yoga pose in the middle of campus. It could be finding a quiet corner in the library where they can practice breathing exercises, just to feel calm and centered again. Your child may carry around a stress ball, a bullet journal, or a fidget toy – anything that distracts from the throbbing pain of stress.


Find an outlet to work off that stress. Having a go-to space or activity is a wonderful thing. Encourage your child to join some kind of social activity or club, somewhere he or she can physically work off the stress. Exercise is beneficial for everyone, but particularly so for those who are feeling the weight of stress and anxiety. Find out the difference between stress and anxiety.


Get some sleep. Remind your child that a good night’s sleep is just as important today as it was when they were a toddler. Sleep improves academic performance and mood; lack of sleep, on the other hand, encourages anxious feelings and leaves a person feeling more drained than necessary.


During this time, remind your child that there are ways to combat anxiety. From time to time, you should remind yourself of that too.


If your child is away at college and is feeling anxious (or you’re feeling anxious for your child) and you’d like further guidance, please visit us



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