Tips for Parents/Family
Table of Contents
- Coping With Your Student Leaving Home
- How Can I Best Support My Student?
- Possible Warning Signs of Distress
- Talking With Your Student in Distress
- UCSC and Other Resources
Look after your own well-being. This might be a good time to put more energy into doing things you like, spending time with friends and family, upping your exercise routine, and paying attention to self-care.
Communicate regularly. As with most things in life, finding balance in how you communicate and how often is important. Sometimes parents and other family members are tempted to check in with their students multiple times a day, which can be too much. Others are afraid of interfering and go too long between calls, texts, video chats, or emails, which may also not be ideal. Talk to your student about how much or little communication is reasonable, and remember that your student may be busy with new schedules and commitments as they adjust to being away from home.
There is no one "typical" way for students to feel when they start college. Some feel lonely and homesick at first but adjust quickly; others need more time to adjust. Some throw themselves in to new activities and relationships and do well right away; others take on too much and then realize they can't handle it all effectively. Basically, be prepared for your student to have their own individual reaction to college.
Let your student take the lead in structuring your conversations—show interest in their new life, but let them tell you what is important to them. It can be beneficial to avoid giving in to the impulse to hound your student with too many questions about grades, how late they are staying out, how much they are studying, and who their friends are. Again, finding the right balance between interest and intrusiveness is key.
Be specific about finances. Work out a plan with your student for paying for tuition, fees, books, room, board, travel, recreation, and other expenses. Being clear about expectations in the beginning can help avoid future misunderstandings. Educate your student about credit card use. Inexperienced users of credit cards can get into deep trouble quickly.
Be realistic regarding your expectations about academic achievement and grades. Adjusting to college life can involve difficult transitions, complicated by excessive grade pressure. Not every “A” student in high school can be an “A” student in college. Be supportive—focus on your student’s development rather than performance, as long as they are meeting basic academic requirements.
If your student does experience difficulties, encourage them to use the many sources of help that UC Santa Cruz has to offer. CAPS is here to help your student cope with emotional or psychological concerns. Talking with a counselor can help. The counselor can also assist your student in finding other university resources.
- Significant change in grades or quality of work (although it is very common for first-year students to have some trouble adjusting to how college academics differ from high school academics)
- Missing classes or assignments
- Expressing distress over ability to keep up or succeed
- Expressing the feeling that they don't measure up to other students or don't belong
- Refusing to talk about acadmics or grades
- Marked changes in behavior and/or appearance
- Excessive fatigue or sleep difficulties
- Visible increase or decrease in weight
- Exaggerated personality traits or behaviors (e.g., agitation, withdrawal, lack of apparent emotion)
- Excessive use of alcohol or other drugs
- Unprovoked anger or hostility
- Irritability, constant anxiety, or tearfulness
- Marked changes in concentration or motivation
- Expressing thoughts about wanting to hurt or kill themself
- Dependency or seeking a lot of your attention
- Direct statements indicating social and academic problems, personal losses, breakup, or other issues
- Written notes, emails, social media posts, or verbal statements that express hopelessness or finality
- Your sense, however vague, that something is seriously amiss
This website provides more detailed information about the signs and symptoms of some specific mental health issues that may be seen in college students, including anxiety disorders, depression and suicidality, eating disorders, and psychosis. We also provide extensive information related to alcohol and other drug issues.
Converse with your student when you have privacy and when both of you are not rushed or preoccupied.
- Set a date for talking so you know you'll both be available, or start a conversation by asking if it's a good time to talk.
- It's preferable to have a serious discussion in person or by phone or video chat rather than through text or email.
- Avoid distractions while talking so you can give your student your undivided attention.
Listen carefully and sensitively to your student in a nonjudgmental manner.
- Be direct, specific, and nonjudgmental, especially when expressing your concern (e.g., "I'm concerned about you because you told me you are feeling isolated").
- Let your student talk; don't minimize or immediately provide reassurance. Telling them that things aren't that bad or that they shouldn't feel upset will likely discourage further disclosure and may make the student feel you don't understand.
- Communicate understanding by repeating back the essence of what your student has told you.
- Avoid "freaking out" or making the conversation about you and your feelings. This can be difficult, but it will help your student feel heard and more likely to open up.
- Avoid judging, evaluating, or criticizing, even if your student asks for your opinion.
- Express your love and caring for your student. Express your desire to help them, when appropriate, or to support them in helping themselves.
- Praise them for being open and honest with you.
Ask specifically about your student's level of risk regarding suicide
- Suicide can be a scary topic, especially for a parent or other family member, but it can be an important one when a student is in distress.
- Ask if your student has thoughts about suicide. Asking directly does not increase the risk, and most students are relieved to have someone to talk to about this.
- "Do you ever feel so bad that you have thought of suicide?"
- "How likely are you to act on those thoughts?"
- "Do you have a plan to kill yourself? Do you know when you would do it (e.g., today, next week) and how?"
- "Do you have access to what you would use to kill yourself?"
- Asking these questions will allow you to determine if your student is in immediate danger of suicide: If a student acknowledges having a plan for suicide, they are in immediate danger.
- If your student is in immediate danger, consider this an emergency and call 911 or a suicide hotline
- If you feel your student isn't in immediate danger, acknowledge their pain as legitimate and offer to work together to get help (e.g., by calling your family doctor or a mental health professional or encouraging your student to do so). Consider referring your student to CAPS.
- College Parent Central (a blog for parents of college students)
- College Parents of America (America's oldest and only membership organization comprised of current and future college parents)
- Jed Foundation (a nonprofit working to promote emotional health and prevent suicide among college students; see their "For Parents" page)
- Mental Health America (MHA): (800) 969-6642 (information, education, advocacy, and support for people with mental illness and their loved ones)
- National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: (800) 273-TALK (8255)
- National Alliance on Mental Health (NAMI): (800) 950-6264 (information, education, advocacy, and support for people with mental illness and their loved ones)
- UCSC Counseling & Psychological Services (CAPS): (831) 459-2628 (for students: appointments, info, referrals, and crisis support; for parents: info and consultation)
- What Parents of College Students of Color Need to Know (booklet)