My anxious child is away at college: how can I help from here? (2023)

posted: Sep. 26, 2019.

My anxious child is away at college: how can I help from here? (1)

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 withgeneralized anxiety disorderwhen 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, becausemental health professionalshave long linked materialism and extrinsic desires to be connected to mental health issues, includingdepression, 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 6thgrade 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 20thcentury, 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 asubstance 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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What is the 3 3 3 rule for anxiety children? ›

The 3 3 3 rule is a simple technique to help manage anxiety. It involves looking around and naming three things you see, then three sounds you hear, and finally, moving three parts of your body. This technique can help ground you in the present moment and reduce anxiety. How can I help my child with anxiety?

Why do so many college kids have anxiety? ›

College students face many new challenges. Often for the first time, they're living away from their families and communities. They're suddenly presented with new surroundings, social situations, and a heavy academic workload. Very often these new challenges can feel overwhelming, leading to depression or anxiety.

How can I help my college child with anxiety? ›

Encourage participation in extracurricular activities. These can help to relieve stress, help your child make new friends, and build self-esteem. Explore opportunities for seeking help. Investigate mental health and other treatment options available on campus and in the local community.

What not to say to an anxious child? ›

10 Things Never to Say to Your Anxious Child
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Feb 26, 2021

What is the rule of 5 for anxiety? ›

This technique asks you to find five things you can see, four things you can touch, three things you can hear, two things you can smell, and one thing you can taste. Using this with someone who feels anxious will help to calm them down and reduce their feelings of anxiety.

What are the three C's for anxiety? ›

By offering myself the three Cs; Curiosity, Courage and Compassion within my Mindfulness practice, I am able to self-manage my levels of anxiety and prevent any unnecessary escalation of panic. Many people experience anxiety on a day-to-day basis.

What is the best anxiety medication for college students? ›

Medication for College Anxiety

Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, or SSRIs are a popular choice, because they're generally well tolerated and considered more effective than other options.

What is the most common anxiety disorder in college students? ›

PANIC DISORDER: characterized by sudden, intense episodes of fear and anxiety that occur often and without warning. College students are in a high-risk age group for panic disorder, as it most frequently is diagnosed during young adulthood.

How do you get over separation anxiety in college? ›

To ease the stress of being separated, it may relieve you to plan a weekend to visit campus and spend time with your student at their school. A lot of universities might hold Parent's Weekends, which are specifically held to introduce you to how your student has been spending their time on their campus.

How do you encourage a struggling college student? ›

Start by listening. Ask questions before offering guidance. Once you understand the problem, help your student by sharing practical tips. Maybe your student needs to talk to their professor or an academic advisor, or get help at the college's tutoring center.

How can I help my child adjust to college? ›

Rules For Helping Your College Student Adjust
  1. Rule #1: Avoid Asking Them If They are Homesick. ...
  2. Rule #2: Write (Even If They Don't Write Back) ...
  3. Rule #3: Ask Questions (But Not Too Many) ...
  4. Rule #4: Expect Change (But Not Too Much) ...
  5. Rule #5: Don't Worry (Too Much ) About Depressive Phone Calls or Letters.

What percentage of college students have anxiety? ›

While anxiety is a common and normal reaction to stress, anxiety disorders can disrupt students' daily lives. 35% of students said they had been diagnosed with anxiety.

What is the 3 by 3 by 3 rule? ›

What is the 3-3-3 rule when adopting a dog? The 3-3-3 rule represents the phases of a rescue dog or common milestones your new dog or puppy will go through. The 3-3-3 rule is the first 3 days, 3 weeks, and 3 months after bringing your dog home from the shelter.

What is the first line treatment for anxiety in children? ›

Antidepressants called SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors) are the recommended first choice of medication for treating anxiety in children. That's because they have been shown to be the most effective, and they have relatively mild side effects. They are also the most commonly prescribed.

What is the 54321 rule for anxiety? ›

The “5-4-3-2-1” tool is a simple yet effective method for regaining control of your mind when anxiety threatens to take over - and it consists of more than counting backwards from five. Rather, the hack helps bring us back to the present by relying on our five senses - sight, sound, touch, smell, and taste.

What is the 333 breathing technique? ›

Set aside all of your tasks and be mindful of your breath and how it makes you feel. An easy technique is called 3-3-3. Which is breathing in for three seconds, hold for three, and exhale for three. Doing this a few times will help you be aware of your surrounds and develop a better sense of reality.

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