Having a Difficult Conversation with your Student

Change is inevitable when a student goes off to college. Students who have gone away have to adapt to a new place to live, new friends and teachers, new learning environments, and new challenges that come with this next phase in their lives. Parents have to adapt to new ways to give their support and be there for their student. One thing that remains the same, however, is the need for both sides to communicate how they are doing and feeling during these times.

It is likely that your student will experience some level of stress during their time in college, but there are variations in how serious that stress can become. According to Forefront Suicide Prevention, one in three college students experiences a mental health issue, most commonly anxiety or depression. Major life changes such as adjusting to college life and experiencing added academic stress can set the stage for the onset of mental health issues.

Due to these changes, it has become even more important to frequently check in on your student through phone and video calls, text messages, emails, on social media and campus visits. When you reach out via these touch points, keep an eye out for signs of distress, such as these (courtesy of the University of Iowa):

  • You notice a decline in the quality of their school performance.
  • You notice a prolonged appearance of depression — they have a sad expression, have experienced a sudden weight gain or loss, or they feel apathetic.
  • You find they are nervous, agitated, irritated easily, aggressive, and/or they talk non-stop.
  • They exhibit bizarre behavior or speech.
  • They have an extreme dependency on family, including exceptionally long or distressing phone calls or visits at home.
  • There is a change in their personal hygiene.
  • They indirectly or directly talk of suicide.
  • You are concerned by things they mention in your conversations.

Your student could exhibit any one of these during their time in college, but if you find one or more instances to be particularly alarming, or that they are lasting longer than you believe is typical, then there could be a more serious problem. Identifying this is easier said than done as these signs can be difficult to recognize.

Opening the Door to Conversation

If you believe a larger mental health issue is happening and that it is time to step in, first, determine the urgency of the situation. This will guide your approach to intervening. The University of Iowa shares this guidance about starting the conversation with students who are struggling with their mental health:

  • Listen to your student and try to be nonjudgmental and uncritical.
  • Spend time with them, if possible, and show that you are there for them and present.
  • Let them know directly that you care and are willing to listen.
  • Let them know you understand their problem. Be encouraging and hopeful that it will eventually resolve and that they will eventually feel better.
  • Do not try to help them solve the problem until you have taken the time to listen.
  • Ask them what they think might help before you offer your own solutions. If you do not feel their safety is being compromised, encourage them to try out their own solutions before they try yours.
  • Share similar experiences or feelings but do not make the conversation about you.
  • Reassure them that you will respect their privacy but avoid total secrecy in case you need to reveal something to keep them safe.
  • Help them understand there are limits to your support and expertise and remind them they can speak to a professional if the help they need is more than what you can provide.
  • Remind them that it is a sign of maturity to seek help when it is needed.
  • If you are concerned for their safety, ask, “Are you thinking about suicide?” rather than, “You aren’t thinking of suicide, are you?”
  • Recommend, but do not insist, they seek professional help, unless the situation is urgent.
  • Continuously follow up with them and keep your line of communication always open.

Resources at School

On-campus support is vital to mental health wellness. Check in with your student’s college or university about the mental health resources they provide.

a school psychologist talking to a young student. He is taking notes while looking at her.
  • What services are available to support students with mental health concerns? 
  • Do counselors include people of color, including those who are Black and Indigenous?
  • Who should family members contact if they believe their student is struggling?
  • Are faculty members supportive of students living with mental health concerns?
  • What resources are available if a student mental health crisis occurs after hours?
 The University of Iowa provides additional steps to take if you believe it is time for on-campus counseling. Make your recommendation to your student in a matter-of-fact manner, and make it clear that this decision represents your best judgment based on your observations and the information you have gathered, as well as your life experiences. Point out the specific behavior that has raised your concerns. Except in cases of emergency, students must have the option to accept or refuse counseling. If there is reluctance on their end, accept their feelings and give them room to consider alternatives and suggest that they give it some time to think it over.

If counseling is decided upon, work with them to make their appointments and offer to accompany them or suggest they bring a friend along. In emergency situations, you can bring the student directly to counseling services.

Crisis Text Line

Help is always available. Call or text 988 – the national behavioral health crisis line- from anywhere in the U.S. to speak with a trained mental health provider via a secure online platform. They can help talk through issues such as depression, anxiety, eating disorders, self-harm, and suicide. The Crisis Text Line is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

When Your Child Feels “Meh” About College

College is a rite of passage — the opportunity to meet people from different backgrounds; carve out a path for personal growth; learn new skills; pursue a career; find independence; and gain valuable, real-world experiences. But not everyone sees it that way. For some students, college may seem like an unnecessary life choice that has no benefit or gain to them. Or their attitude toward college changes as their educational journey continues.

Student looking board and leaning against their hand as their other arm rests against their unopened notebooks.This begs the question: What makes post secondary education an attractive option for some, but the complete opposite for others? The answer may be apathy.

Apathy is defined as the feeling of not feeling. Psychology Today breaks it down a bit more: “Whenever you feel that something vital is missing from your life, yet lack the drive to pursue it, you’re afflicted with this curiously ‘emotionless’ emotion.” Apathetic students have no feeling or another about attending college; more so, they are likely to feel disconnected and unmotivated about the college experience altogether.

Conversations about students and apathy lead back to mental health. According to College Parent Central, “Students who are apathetic about their college experiences, who are disconnected and disengaged, are at greatest risk for low morale, for leaving school and/or for suffering depression.”

For high school students, the journey to determine their college plans brings a level of stress that perhaps they have never experienced before. From maintaining a good GPA and studying for and taking the ACT or SAT, to campus visits, applications, essays, interviews and discussions about financial aid, the college decision-making process is long and difficult. And even after a school is determined and the fall semester begins, students are met with a new way of life and new challenges — keeping up with academic demands, making new friends, getting used to a brand-new experience all the while managing independence. This may cause some to feel lonely, or have anxiety or depression.

With all of these stressors, it’s easy to see why pursuing a college degree may not be the top priority for a high school student. Furthermore, National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) provides these stats on mental health and young people:

  • 1 in 5 youth and young people  experiences a mental health condition
  • 75% of all lifetime mental health conditions begin by age 24
  • 30% of college students reported feeling so down at some point in the previous year that they found it difficult to function

Determining if Your Student is Apathetic

If you think your child is apathetic toward college, College Parent Central suggests asking yourself some of the following questions:

• Does my student learn and do only what is required and no more?
• Is my student so busy working or socializing that they save little of their energy for school?
• Has my student chosen their major for the “return on investment” rather than to fulfill a passion?
• Is my student generally unmotivated about school?
• Is my student disconnected or disengaged from the college experience — not really caring about much?
• Does my student avoid communicating with faculty members and advisors through appointments, e-mails or phone conversations?
• Does my student avoid studying?
• Does my student have a significant number of absences from classes?
• Does my student ever misuse alcohol or drugs? Are they involved in binge drinking?
• Is my student involved in activities on campus?
• Does my student show a lack of concern for most social issues happening in the world today?
• Does my student show an inability to handle their own affairs?

If you answered yes to some of the questions above, you may want to discuss with your child their views on college or their plans for the future.

It's Time for an Important Conversation

How do you cope with a child who is apathetic about college? Sit down with them for a one-on-one conversation and offer your help. Ask them to share their goals and talk to them about their mental health. Assure them that they can trust you, and create a space where they feel open and willing to chat.

Sad daughter getting confronted by her mother.Within these conversations, College Parent Central wants you to encourage your child to explore their interests and find others who may share those interests. If they are having trouble making friends, share with them opportunities to volunteer, join a club, engage in activities on campus or find a part-time job they know they will enjoy. Remind them that there are many resources available at school, including health and counseling centers. Talk to them about self-care, whether that may be exercise, therapy or taking mental health days.

If they truly do not feel a connection to college, then it simply might not be the best time for them to go to college. Alternative options like taking a gap semester or gap year could give them the time they need to make a more informed decision about their future.

College Parent Central also shares that you should reinforce to your child that they themselves can do something about their apathy. Help them explore their needs and their expectations on what college would be like. If they have specific interests or goals they’d like to accomplish, show them how college can be a way to reach those goals. 

When your child is ready and able to combat their apathy, they’ll work on getting more involved. You may see them engaging in new activities and making friends. They’ll begin to feel more in control and fully immerse themselves in and enjoy the college experience.

Avoid lecturing, blaming or invalidating them. That will only send the message that you aren’t a safe person they can talk to about their real issues. Remember, they may have deep concerns about college, motivation and their future. The more open and accepting you are the easier it will be to have conversations that matter and guide them along the way. 

Scholarship Search Help

According to the Missouri Department of Higher Education & Workforce Development, apathy toward attending college is one reason scholarship applications are decreasing. This means more scholarships are currently available for students. Here at Happier U, we provide a variety of resources to help you and your child find a scholarship that is right for them.

Be sure to visit our Search for Scholarships page for guidance, including scholarship search engines, tips and other helpful links. My Scholarship Central is another resource that is available to find scholarship providers by region in Missouri, learn more about their scholarship offerings and apply.