May 4, 2019
Part of the series “Parenting for Success”
As a former marriage and family therapist and a parent of two grown children (one just graduating from college this May), I’ve seen firsthand how, despite all the love and well-intended care and nurturing parents can give, sometimes children struggle very deeply as they launch to college, and throughout those years of independence at school.
Depression, suicidality and drug addiction are on the rise, and many if not most parents don’t know how to handle it in their children. Scores of parents have shared with me over the years their desperation and confusion in trying to understand their child’s challenges, and even accept that their child was having serious problems that needed to be treated. “How can this be happening to us?” they ask themselves, and they feel entirely out of their element in attempting to offer effective support to their child who is struggling.
To learn more about what parents can do to provide effective support to their children during the stressful years of college, I caught up this week with two leading adolescent mental health experts, B. Janet Hibbs, Ph.D. and Anthony Rostain, MD who have co-authored a book called The Stressed Years of Their Lives: Helping Your Child Survive and Thrive During Their College Years .
Written in response to the growing mental health crisis happening on college campuses today, the book aims to provide parents with the tools and information they need to truly prepare their young adults for life away from home. Drs. Hibbs and Rostain focus on ways that families can build social and emotional readiness which is a truer predictor for long-term success than academic readiness. They offer solid tips for building safe spaces around mental health issues in the home so students become practiced in speaking honestly and openly about their feelings and struggles.
Dr. Anthony Rostain is a nationally recognized expert in the field of child and adolescent psychiatry. He is a professor of psychiatry and pediatrics at the Perelman School of Medicine, University of Pennsylvania, and practices “lifespan neurodevelopmental psychiatry” at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP) and in the Department of Psychiatry of Penn Medicine. He was Co-Chair of the University of Pennsylvania’s Task Force on Student Psychological Health and Welfare from 2014-2016.
Dr. B. Janet Hibbs has held faculty positions for more than 15 years in graduate programs for psychologists and marital and family therapists and maintains a private practice in Philadelphia. She is the author of Try to See It My Way: Being Fair in Love and Marriage .
Here’s what the authors share about how to help our children survive and thrive through their college years:
Kathy Caprino: You’re both mental health professionals with years of experience helping families and young adults. How did your collaboration come about and what do you hope readers will take away from your book?
B. Janet Hibbs: This is a unique collaboration between Dr. Rostain, an expert in adolescent psychiatry, and myself, a family psychologist. Our professional relationship deepened when I turned to Dr. Rostain to treat my son, Jensen, whose harrowing depression required a medical leave from college. We are both practitioners of family systems therapy, so Dr. Rostain welcomed parental involvement and participation in Jensen’s therapy.
Despite my professional expertise, Jensen’s crisis left me humbled and scrambling for answers, while more deeply informing me of the preparation, knowledge, and skills that parents and students need.
Following Jensen’s recovery, and with his generous permission, I again turned to Dr. Rostain, this time to ask him to coauthor The Stressed Years of Their Lives , a book that provides solutions, strategies and solidarity for parents who want to help their students avoid, resolve, or recover from a mental health problem or crisis.
Caprino: As the title of your book suggests, young adults are incredibly stressed about getting into and succeeding in college. Why is this occurring? Tony
Anthony Rostain: High schools and colleges are the last major institutions that provide a transition from education to work—a transition that will have consequences throughout a young adult’s life. While the number of slots at higher ranking universities has remained constant, the number of college-eligible students has risen dramatically. Adolescents and young adults know that they face harsher competition for admission to college, and later, for entry into a good job. It’s often the pressure to make good money from your career that leads to the feeling that if you fail even once, your entire future is over.
In this brave new world, one in four college students has been treated for a mental health condition; 91% of Gen Z’ers have experienced one or more emotional or physiological stress-related symptom in the past year. And what about parents? As the recent college admissions scandal suggests, parents are desperate to provide every option, every advantage so their child will have a ticket to “the good life.” Parental protection and anxiety are transmitted to kids, who are exposed to adult pressures at ever-younger ages.
Caprino: Is there a link between excessive online media usage (social media, video game playingetc.) and mental health problems?
Hibbs: Most U.S. mental health experts agree that digital technology usage by today’s youth exerts a major influence on their lives. According to a recent survey by the Pew Research Center, 95% of teens have access to a smartphone and 45% say they’re online “almost constantly.” Teenagers have mixed attitudes about the effect of social media on their lives—a third say that it’s mostly positive, 40% report that it’s neither positive nor negative, and about one quarter say it’s mostly negative.
While most young people are able to balance their daily activities while using social media, some individuals are prone to over-usage which, in turn, leads to a variety of health problems—obesity, sleep disturbances, and cardiovascular risk—and mental health problems, including excessive distraction/inattention, anxiety, social withdrawal and even “Facebook depression.”
Parents should closely monitor their teen’s online media usage as well as their own and should set limits on the amount of time their kids spend online, and understand the types of websites and social media platforms their child visits. It’s also a good idea for parents to have access to what their teens are posting online or texting to their friends, as a way of detecting emerging mental health issues.
Caprino: You discuss the social-emotional skills that young people need to function independently in college. What are these skills and how can parents help their kids develop them?
Rostain: As we envision it, beginning no later than the junior year of high school, parents need to start having honest conversations with their kids about developing “social-emotional maturity.”
Rather than lectures, these parent-child dialogues can explore the following questions:
Conscientiousness: Are you ready to take responsibility for the consequences of your actions?
Self-management: Are you ready to take over the routine tasks of everyday life in the relatively unstructured environment of college?
Interpersonal skills: Are you ready to make friends, deal with roommates, and find suitable social activities?
Self-control: Can you resist temptations? Are you ready to set limits on the time spent watching TV or interacting on the Internet that can lead to insufficient sleep and disruptions in self-care and studying?
Grit: Are you ready to cope with frustration, disappointment, and failure, and persist in the face of setbacks and obstacles?
Risk management: Are you ready to have fun without taking too many risks, or too many substances?
Self-acceptance: Can you accept your faults, tolerate your mistakes, and deal with your problems without feeling too guilty or ashamed?
Open mindset/Help-seeking: Are you ready to ask for help when things aren’t going well for you?
Caprino: We hear about dangers on campus such as binge drinking and sexual assault. You also cite the skyrocketing rate of mental health problems. What should parents be most concerned about? How can parents intervene before it’s too late?
Hibbs: While it’s typical for adolescents to experiment with alcohol and substance use (ASU), there are serious consequences from excessive ASU. The best way for parents to address these risks is to have conversations with their kids about the realities of ASU on campus. It’s vital to be informed about the facts, to be able to discuss them in a “matter-of-fact” way and to be clear about one’s values and beliefs regarding ASU. It’s equally important to acknowledge that decisions about ASU are going to be up to the young person to make and that a parent’s job is to promote healthy behaviors.
There are numerous online resources to guide the conversations, but our general approach is:
- Choose a good time to talk
- Listen without distractions
- Verbalize respect
- Appeal to common goals
- Avoid conversation killers
- Acknowledge that conflict is inevitable
- Agree to disagree
- Shun debates
It usually takes several conversations to establish a trusting basis for open dialogues on this topic, but it is well worth the effort.
The skyrocketing rise in anxiety, depression and other mental health problems among American youth mandates that parents gain an understanding of the early signs of psychological distress (as opposed to “stress”). Warning signs include: difficulty falling asleep or waking up, lack of motivation to study, a drop off in class attendance or school performance, lethargy, social withdrawal, lack of enjoyment of usual activities, expressions of excessive guilt or hopelessness. If these signs are present, parents can encourage their kid to find support from trusted adults on campus including a mental health professional.
Caprino: How can parents help in the aftermath of a serious setback or mental health problem that occurs in college?
Rostain: No one plans for a student’s mental health crisis, serious academic setback or disciplinary judgment. The off-ramp from college has no glossy brochure. Instead, it’s littered with unrealized hopes and future dreams.
Despite the epidemic of mental health problems reported for this age group, parents often—and understandably–think, “Not my child. He’s prepared; she’s happy; he’s got a good head on his shoulders. Mental problems don’t run in our family.”
These positive biases, as well as their evil twin in negative biases—“You’re weak if you seek help; Counseling is just complaining”—can delay needed treatment and worsen a college student’s struggle. Prompt treatment for an academic, mental health or substance use problem may actually enable a student to remain at school, with accommodations or academic deferments that preserve his options. Have your student sign a HIPAA waiver so that you can partner with the treatment team.
After a serious setback, there are three golden rules of parenting to assist your child’s relaunch: 1) offer unconditional support, 2) suspend judgments and 3) set limits.
And don’t forget to seek support for yourself.