Anxious Parenting Series Week 7 - Out of the Nest: Parenting Your Anxious College Student

Anxiety disorders are a huge concern in college.

Stress disorders, self-harm, overwhelm and depression all become big concerns in college due to a couple of different factors: age, brain development, and the stress and independence that go hand in hand with starting college.

And rather than you being able to monitor any big changes in your student, you’re not there.

You only hear and know as much as they want to tell you. Whether you have serious concerns, or you just feel like you’re out of the loop, it’s tough to parent your college student and feel like you’re actually having an impact.

Parents will often reach out to me about their new college students, sharing concerns like:

  • My college student never calls!

  • I’m worried my college student has anxiety and depression.

  • I’m not sure if my college student can manage stress.

  • Is my college student depressed/anxious/too angry/too overwhelmed?

  • And the ultimate concern: I don’t know how to help my college student deal with everything that’s going on.

It’s tough to figure out how to parent and deal with these concerns when your student no longer lives in your house. And even if you’ve noticed signs of anxiety in the past, the game plan can be so different when your child is in college vs. when they were at home.

So what can you do?

We’re coming up on our second to last post on anxiety and parenting, and here’s what we’ve already covered:

  1. The Building Blocks of Anxiety

  2. Managing Your Own Anxiety as a Parent

  3. Parenting Anxious Pre-Schoolers and Elementary Schoolers

  4. Anxiety and Parenting a Child with Anger Management Issues

  5. Perfectionism and Parenting Your High Schooler

  6. Preparing Your High Schooler for College

  7. Out of the Nest: How to Parent Your Anxiety-Driven College Student

  8. Moving Forward and Next Steps

What are the signs of anxiety in college students?

When you’re in college, or really any challenging environment, it makes sense that stress levels increase. And experiencing stress isn’t bad on its own - stress lets us know that we’re dealing with something that is important to us. It’s a helpful emotion to feel and notice.

So what’s the difference between stress in college vs. having an anxiety disorder?

When that stress starts to feel overwhelming, sometimes it can tip over to the point where a counseling professional might diagnose your college student with an anxiety disorder. And it’s usually at the point where your child feels unable to manage the stress on their own.

Is it just stress, or is there something diagnosable?

In terms of the DSM-5 (the diagnostic and statistical manual that social workers, counselors, and psychologists use), you may be looking at a Generalized Anxiety Disorder if your college student exhibits the following:

  1. The presence of excessive anxiety and worry about a variety of topics, events, or activities.

  2. Worry occurs more often than not for at least 6 months.

  3. The worry is experienced as very challenging to control. The worry in both adults and children may easily shift from one topic to another.

  4. The anxiety and worry are accompanied with at least three of the following physical or cognitive symptoms (In children, only one symptom is necessary for a diagnosis of GAD):

    • Edginess or restlessness

    • Tiring easily; more fatigued than usual

    • Impaired concentration or feeling as though the mind goes blank

    • Irritability (which may or may not be observable to others)

    • Increased muscle aches or soreness

    • Difficulty sleeping (due to trouble falling asleep or staying asleep, restlessness at night, or unsatisfying sleep)

There are other anxiety disorders too, including Panic Disorder, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, Separation Anxiety, and Phobias - but regardless of the type of anxiety, having an anxiety diagnosis comes down to if that worry is getting in the way of every day life, and inhibiting you more often than not.

How do I parent my college student if I’m worried about their stress levels?

If you have a concern that your child is experiencing a lot of worry, or an excessive amount (which can be pretty subjective, to be fair), you want to be gentle in how your reach out.

You know your college student best, so you know what type of communication is going to be best received. Some students will respond better to a text vs. a call. Others may already talk with their parents every week, and parental concerns can naturally be brought up during conversation.

Building independence while helping your student out:

College is all about becoming a self-reliant adult. So rather than immediately jumping in to solve the problem, try to express your concern while building up their problem solving skills.

Help your student identify counseling resources for them. Most colleges have a counseling center, which is a great first step to helping with anxiety and stress management.

If the college counseling center doesn’t feel like a great fit, they should still be able to connect your college student with other mental health resources in their town.

You can also search psychology today to find therapists in your student’s college town, who specialize in stress or anxiety work.

If your student is on board with at least considering counseling, it can be extremely helpful to come up with a list of therapists, counselors, psychologists and psychiatrists that you think could be a good fit for them. Sometimes narrowing down the list from hundreds of professionals to your top 3 or top 5 makes the search less overwhelming, while still allowing your college student to take ownership of this process.

#1 Identify and Empathize :

When you notice signs of anxiety and overwhelm in your college student, gently point these out.

#2 Calm :

Help your student review stress management and relaxation strategies.

#3 Game Plan :

Narrow down counseling and psychology resources in your student’s college town, and offer to help them with making the initial contact.

Homework

Last week was all about making sure your high school senior was actually ready for college. This week, ask yourself:

  • What’s the best way for me to help my student feel comfortable reaching out to me about mental health?

  • How can I share my mental health experiences in a way that encourages my student to reach out to me as well?

  • What’s the balance, for me, between helping my student out and letting them build their independence?

Curious to hear more? Reach out to me at kelsey@compassionatecounselingstl.com. As a child and adolescent anxiety specialist, I work with kids, teens, college students and parents to help manage their anxiety, stress, and anger. Compassionate Counseling St. Louis is located in Clayton, MO and works with families throughout Creve Couer, Ballwin, Town and Country, Brentwood, and Ladue, and college students at Washington University, Webster University, Saint Louis University, and University of Missouri-St. Louis. You (or your college student!) can set up our first free consult on this very website, on our consultation page.