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.

How to Survive the Empty Nest: A Parent’s Guide to Coping When the Kids Are Off to College

Think about a time when your house was filled with the sounds of stomping feet running through the hallway. Clothes splattered with food stains and dirt fill the hamper, waiting for their turn in the wash. A gallon of milk sits on the counter next to a half-eaten bowl of soggy cereal. The front door seems to open and close at a rapid pace, the slams echoing through the house. Toys are scattered across the floor — at night, you quietly pick them up, knowing very well they’ll be spewed across the floor again tomorrow.

Flash forward 10 or 15 years and these sights and sounds are nowhere to be found. The kids have grown up and are off to the next chapter in their lives: college. They’ve moved out. The quietness of the house is a welcome and strange feeling. You long for the sounds of pitter-pattering feet, the sights of jumping on beds, and the smells of family breakfast in the morning. You are now an empty nester, and it’s a bittersweet feeling… it is definitely a whole new world at home.

PsychCentrala woman lounging on a yellow couch leaning over to look at her laptop defines empty nest syndrome as, “the feelings of sadness, anxiety and loss of purpose that some parents and caregivers feel when their grown children move out of the family home.” These feelings could be confusing to some, as they could start off on a positive note (maybe you feel excited to finally have the house to yourself!), only to then take a turn in the other direction.

Empty nest syndrome can lead to mental health issues such as depression and anxiety or behaviors like financial risk-taking or substance misuse. It usually lasts about two months but could go on for longer, depending on other factors such as financial stress or health situations.

Self-Diagnosis Help

When your child leaves the house, you may feel mildly anxious or depressed. That is to be expected. If your sadness continues after a few weeks or if it starts affecting how you function on a daily basis, consider seeking mental health help. Empty nest syndrome tends to creep in unexpectedly. 

How can you tell if you have empty nest syndrome? Here are symptoms PsychCentral says to look out for:

  • Restlessness: You notice an inability to focus.
  • Loneliness: You have an overwhelming sense of emptiness or feel unwanted and alone.
  • Irritability: You snap over things that are not important, or you feel frustrated that you seemingly don’t have control of situations.
  • Languishing: You have less energy and motivation for the things you used to do.

Most importantly, take note of your feelings and when they start. If you feel particularly down every day for at least two weeks, you’re likely experiencing depression.

There are other challenges that come with empty nest syndrome, most notably with your child and your partner. According to the Kentucky Counseling Center, these challenges include establishing and maintaining a new type of relationship with your adult child; learning how to be a couple again with your partner; figuring out how to fill your daily schedule now that there are fewer things to do; and possibly finding inconsideration and lack of sympathy from others because they don’t understand you.

The Kentucky Counseling Center also notes that full-time parents are most susceptible to empty nest syndrome. These reasons include experiencing a self-identity crisis due to the change in parenting roles, experiencing relationship struggles with their partner, or realizing that they are unable to live alone.

Coping Mechanisms

A middle-aged asian couple hugging, smiling, and laughing.There are many ways to deal with empty nest syndrome. To start, PsychCentral shares these coping mechanisms.

  • Laugh More: Laughter really is the best medicine! It can lift your spirits and has many health benefits. Seek a smile — get together with friends and tell funny stories, or watch a comedy-filled movie.
  • Discover Your Values: Speak your values aloud or write them down — it might help you re-examine what matters to you.
  • Get to know your college student in a  new way: You may think you know your adult child, but they are growing up and becoming a new person. Start communicating with them as an adult. Check in with them and ask how they’d like to catch up (a phone call, video, or over text).
  • Exercise: From heart health to mental health, there are so many physical, mental and emotional health benefits to exercising regularly.
  • Invest in yourself: Start a new hobby or go on that vacation that you’ve spoken about for years but never got around to planning.
  • Practice self-care: Put yourself first. Eat well, treat yourself to a massage or take part in activities that interest you.

The Kentucky Counseling Center shares these additional tips:

  • Acknowledge your grief: Allow yourself to feel sad and acknowledge your feelings. Talk about the sadness you’re experiencing with your partner or friends, and listen to their advice.
  • Give yourself time: It always takes time to adjust to change — however big or small it is. Work on your own  wellness during this time and establish goals that you’ve been looking to accomplish. If you’ve always wanted to get into yoga, now is the time to start! Meet new people by joining groups and taking up a new hobby. Keep your health in check too with a doctor’s appointment and checkups.
  • Focus on the positive: Now that you have more time to yourself, this is a great opportunity to develop deeper relationships with friends, family and colleagues. And it’s likely that the relationship with your child who has flown the coop will only become stronger.
  • Seek treatment: There is a line between empty nest syndrome and depression, so do not wait to get help from a mental health professional if this line is crossed.

Get Help 24/7

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.

Staying Connected to Your Adult Child Without Going Over the Top

A mother and daughter sitting on the couch, facing each other, and talking.

It seems that kids grow up in the blink of an eye. First they are a fragile newborn, and soon enough they are a trekking toddler, then a grade-schooler, and teenager… and all of a sudden, they are finally 18! Give yourself a pat on the back. They’ve graduated from school and you’ve graduated from parenting. You’re officially done!

Well, not quite. It just looks a little different now.

A parent’s work is never done. As your child gets older, parents need to strike the delicate balance between treating them like a child and treating them like an adult. With teens and young adults, it may seem like your child needs you less and less. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t check in on them, provide support and guidance, and stay connected.  In fact, those are things that help them fully develop as adults.

According to KQED, the thing teenagers are craving the most is connection and listening. It is important to check in on your teen and their mental health without being overbearing.

Keep an Eye on Mental Health

Everyone has mental health. It ranges from wellness to illness, just like physical health. Your teen or young adult will experience a broad range of normal emotions and issues. But, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), college is a time when mental health problems can emerge. In fact, the organization points to a 2018 survey that found 30 percent of college students were diagnosed with at least one mental health disorder in the past year, including 22 percent with anxiety and 18 percent with depression, indicating the need for more support for students especially during stressful times.

When responding to and overcoming campus challenges, NAMI wants you to remember the five T’s: tell, test, teach, talk and take action:

  • Tell your child they can come to you with any problem.
  • Test their academic health by checking their mid-semester and end-of-semester grades.
  • Teach them how to recognize depression and anxiety.
  • Talk with them more often or visit them when they are in distress.
  • Take action if your student is experiencing high-risk mental health concerns.

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 with 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.

Communication is Key

It may be challenging to navigate a relationship with your teenager.  Raising Healthy Teens  says, “During these years, teens need to stretch out and cultivate their independence, all while staying connected to us. If their job is to stretch out, our job is to keep them connected.” So, how can you do this well?

a tan man with a beard lounging in bed with headphones in talking to someone on his phone over facetime.First, check in without making it seem like you are interviewing them. Instead of asking what happened in their life today, ask how they are doing or how they are feeling. Give them your undivided attention. The most important thing to remember is that teens will come to you for your support when they need it.

Raising Healthy Teens  offers a few engaging ways to keep your relationship with your teen strong. Forge bonds over food by cooking or eating together. Does your teen like a certain genre of music? Ask them to play you a few of their favorite songs and talk about what you enjoyed when listening. Share a memory of their time as a young child – maybe it was a funny moment or something adorable that will always stay with you. Plan a one-on-one outing or let them invite their friends over to hang out. Above all, be honest and be available.

Listening is equally important. KQED provides some great tips on how to listen well. “The best thing parents and caregivers can give teens right now is the undivided attention of listening, empathizing and compassion. … When teens do share their worries, resist the urge to either minimize them or solve the problem for them.”

Some teens may feel the need to vent or tell you something that’s bothering them. So, lend an ear. But be careful not to go too far in sharing your own ideas on their issue just because it worked for you. If you notice you seem to be over-involved and inserting yourself into many details of their life, just remember that “helicopter parenting” does not teach your teen and young adult the necessary life skills they need to manage themselves and life’s challenges.

KQED suggests to first validate their problems (“That sounds tough.”), then prompt them to think of solutions (“What do you think you should do?”). Offer choices – help in looking for an answer, or the opportunity to talk them through it, guide them through it or listen to them through it. 

Connect With Me Cards

a set of hands opening a clear box with the Connect with Me cards inside.

The Missouri Department of Health & Senior Services offers a unique way to foster communication with your teen or young adult. Connect with Me cards can help jumpstart meaningful conversations with categories such as “Growing Up,” “Ice Breaker,” “Tough Stuff,” “Building Connections” and “Taking Action.” 

How to Use Connect with Me cards:

  1. Order a FREE set of cards from the Missouri Department of Health & Senior Services website.
  2. Once the cards arrive in the mail, use them as conversation starters — anywhere or at any time! The questions, arranged by categories, can be asked by the adult to the child, or vice versa. There are no right or wrong answers. 
  3. Don’t use the cards all at one time – save them for later chats too!
  4. Icebreakers are good to start with, but you can switch to a new topic at any time.
  5. Challenge yourself to keep an open mind – your child could have a differing opinion than your own.
  6. These cards may bring up difficult conversations. Don’t shy away from those; instead, welcome those types of conversations with open arms.

How to Deal: Family Financial Stress and College

College is a time for students to grow and learn, as well as gain and maintain independence. However,  in between managing tough class schedules, keeping up with the curriculum, making new friends, getting involved in on-campus activities and adjusting to a new way of life, it is undeniable that college students are subjected to an incredible amount of stress. Add in worries about money and paying for tuition and fees, then this stress can reach a tipping point.

Tuition varies by college, but an annual survey by U.S. News & World Report found that the average cost of tuition and fees for the 2021-2022 school year (for schools ranked as a National University) is $43,775 at private colleges, $28,238 for out-of-state students at public schools, and $11,631 for state residents at public colleges. Other college costs vary by school and include room and board, books, and supplies.

College can be expensive. Tuition woes can place a huge burden on families and students. The more stress a student experiences, the less likely they will succeed academically. Educate your child now about financial responsibility and how to handle their money in order to set them up for success in the future.

Start a Discussion

The best way your child can learn about financial responsibility is to create an open dialogue with them about money and remain transparent. According to a study from the University of Georgia, discussing money with your child can help alleviate financial stress and anxiety later on. “Across the board, students whose families talked openly about money—specifically investing—reported feeling less stress and higher optimism when it came to money management and their future finances,” the study reported.

The study also found disparities with students of color and how they are having fewer conversations about finances with their parents: “African American students reported receiving significantly fewer messages about saving and banking, while Hispanic students received fewer messages about investing when compared with other racial/ethnic groups. This finding provides key insight on how families and schools can approach conversations about money.”

Aid is Available

There are many types of college aid available for students, but a good place to start is the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). The FAFSA offers access to federal financial aid such as Pell Grants, Work-Study and student loans; state financial aid; financial aid from colleges, universities and other post-secondary schools; and some private scholarships and grants.

The FAFSA should be filled out every year a student plans to attend college.

Specifically in the Show Me State, grants and scholarships administered by the Missouri Department of Higher Education & Workforce Development are available, such as:

In addition to the online tools and guides provided by the Missouri Department of Higher Education & Workforce Development, the U.S. Department of Education offers checklists for every stage of a student’s education — from elementary school through grad school, and even checklists for adult students — detailing financial resources to help prepare for college. Managing money responsibly and living like a college student will save students stress and worry later.

Effects on your Mental Health

The college experience can impact mental health in both positive and negative ways. Beyond a degree, there are many benefits to college. Students can network, build confidence and self-awareness, and gain important social-emotional health skills. Financially, they learn the value of generational wealth building and have an advantage with overall lifetime financial earnings and stability.

a student leaning over in frustration on top of all the bills and financial information she is dealing with.Financial stress around college can also impact mental health in negative ways, for a short period of time or more long-term. BestColleges.com outlines how this happens:

  • Due to the rising costs of college, high schoolers are rethinking their post-secondary education future. In a 2022 survey by Citizens Financial Group and Junior Achievement, nearly 70 percent of the teen respondents said rising tuition costs altered their college plans.
  • Although the earned money offsets some college costs, working while attending classes can be exhausting for some students.
  • Meeting basic needs such as securing housing and affording food may be a struggle for some students.
  • First-generation college students — those whose families lack a college-going tradition — likely have more financial anxiety around college expenses.
  • More than 60 percent of graduates with student loan debt said it’s negatively affected their mental health, according to CNBC. With this, more students are putting off other financial goals such as buying a home.
  • In a 2017 Community Mental Health Journal study of British students, learners who struggled to pay their bills reported higher levels of depression, anxiety, and alcohol dependence. In turn, students with poorer mental health and greater alcohol dependence had difficulty paying bills.

Remember, help is just a call or text away. 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 with 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.