As tempting as it may be to find a way to do more than lend a sympathetic ear, it is in your student’s best interest that you do not do more unless you are sincerely concerned for his or her safety.

When most of you left home to attend college or launch your career, connections with family members probably changed radically. For a majority of people over the age of 35 or so, leaving home meant significantly reduced face time, limited phone access, long-distance phone charges, and new friends and opportunities.

All of these factors contributed to reduced parental influence. Today’s experience of leaving home could not be more different. A 2007 Cornell study found that nearly 30 percent of our undergraduate students, regardless of their year in school, were in touch with their parents by phone daily (often more than once a day) and more than 85 percent spoke to their parents at least once per week (and these numbers do not include texting, Facebook, or other forms of written communication). Moreover, studies find that parents remain a vital source of emotional support, with six of 10 students reporting that they turn to parents for support when sad, anxious, or depressed. In short, despite the distance and growing autonomy that college offers young adults, parents matter.

The large role that contemporary parents continue to play in their college student’s life, even sometimes from great distances, comes as a surprise to many of us who did not have such experiences growing up. Indeed, as someone who studies college mental health and well-being, I had not anticipated that a significant line of my research would involve close examination of the role that parents play in their child’s life after he or she has left home. The influential role of parents, however, is evident in more than just their popular nomination as emotional confidants. In several studies of factors that influence the onset or worsening of psychological distress in college students, perceived emotional connection and support from parents consistently emerged as a very powerful element—one that significantly protects students when present, and heightens risk of serious psychological distress when absent.

Discerning between stress and distress

The strong role that parents continue to play creates both opportunities and challenges. Although hearing about your student’s day-to-day life can be gratifying and reassuring, it can also leave a parent confused about how to discern between stress and distress— between the normal feelings and experiences that come with being a college student and the unhealthy feelings and perceptions that accompany more serious forms of distress. This is particularly important in light of the fact that late adolescence and early adulthood are the most common times for the onset of mental illness.

Both stress and distress are perceived as suffering, and both can feel unmanageable, at least for a while. Stress, however, typically serves to motivate action in service of resolution, whereas distress feels chronic and unresolvable to the sufferer. In fact, we know that human beings do not grow or perform well without some stress, so as hard as it can be to regularly hear about your student’s stressful events or times, it may help to think of these as growth opportunities. It is important to keep in mind that since college can pose entirely novel experiences for students, they may not feel or seem as resilient as usual—at least at first.

 

Since the “no news is good news” adage no longer applies in today’s college student–parent relationship, it is important to be able to tell the difference between signs and symptoms of healthy, or at least manageable, stress and more serious forms of psychological distress. Here are a few questions you can ask yourself to help figure out how much to worry:

  • Is your student’s response to whatever is posing challenges consistent with his or her typical response to stress?
  • How much are stressful emotions interfering with life (for example, going to classes, socializing, taking care of himself/herself )?
  • How long lasting and chronic is your student’s negative feeling?
  • To what extent is your student repeating the same or worsening negative thoughts and fears?
  • Is she or he connecting to people on campus (not just friends from home or other virtual connections)?
  • To what extent is he or she taking realistic and productive steps to reduce stress?

Concerning levels of distress bring about chronic feelings of extreme overwhelm that interfere with the ability to function in daily life. While feeling so down that it is hard to get out of bed and function normally can (and does) happen to most of us once in a while, feeling like this for more than a couple of days every now and again is a sign that more help and support may be needed. This, coupled with no local support or connection, does warrant parent intervention.

If you are worried about your student’s stability and well-being, please contact the Office of the Dean of Students (607-255-1115) during regular business hours, or call Cornell University Police (607-255-1111) or Gannett Health Services (607-255-5155) any time of day or night.


 

As tempting as it may be to find a way to do more than lend a sympathetic ear

Helping your student thrive

It is important to possess reasonable and realistic expectations of yourself and your student when he or she leaves for college, particularly in responding to daily stressors. Unlike when your child was living at home, you are not well-positioned to do much more than listen, encourage, and support. As tempting as it may be to find a way to do more than lend a sympathetic ear, it is in your student’s best interest that you do not do more unless you are sincerely concerned for his or her safety. Experiencing daily stress, even if it involves feeling really down at times, is a critical part of learning how to productively cope with life, and it offers important opportunities for development and reflection.

Just as leaving for college invites emerging adults to develop new skills and abilities, it invites parents to step fully into new roles as more distal supporters and advisors. Research consistently shows that parental emotional availability is useful in young adult development of autonomy and capacity, but what does this look like? Here are a few tips for offering developmentally useful support and guidance:

  • Help your student become aware of his or her own patterns of stress management by asking the questions above and helping him or her to understand the differences between normal and healthy stress and more serious signs of distress.
  • Encourage your student to make local connections. Although the Internet offers unparalleled opportunities to stay connected with friends at home, having local friends, confidants, and supporters is imperative for thriving and coping when times are hard.
  • Limit your involvement in problem solving to making observations or suggestions. If there are calls to be made, offices to be visited, information to be gathered, or conversations to be had, support your child in taking these steps, but refrain from doing it for him or her, unless it is clearly your jurisdiction.
  • Gradually reduce contact to the point that it feels comfortable to go for a week or more without significant exchange. I know this sounds radical for some families; there are a number of students who regard their parent(s) as their best friend(s). And, it need not happen right away. But, it is important that your student have the opportunity to experience herself or himself as capable of going through multiple days without parental check in. Experiencing yourself as capable and resilient is not possible if you do not confront situations that require resilience.
  • Model healthy ways of coping. Share your positive strategies for dealing with your own challenges. Your evolution as a parent and a person is a powerful learning opportunity for your student since he or she inevitably identifies with you more than you probably know (or like to think!). Being mindful about how you manage your own stress and sharing that process with your student is even more supportive than simply listening to what is shared because it models authentic growth and development.

Parents are critical allies of the developmental process. Staying connected while supporting separation and the trials and errors that build capacity and confidence is a fine line—particularly in the constant-contact era. There is no right or wrong way of helping children grow; it seems to happen despite us in most cases anyway! When in doubt, reach out for advice and trust that all of us here at Cornell want the best for your child, as well.