By Jennifer Van Luven, MSW, LCSW, CDM
As a mother of a college freshman, I have to admit that I may be more attune to the conversations of new college freshman being “unhappy” and deciding to leave college before it has really begun. Kids today find it very easy to call it quits and move back home and, alarmingly, many parents allow them. There may be several reasons as to why this happens. Do we live in a world where today’s youth need instant gratification? Is this generation just “entitled?” Have we given them the tools to fly the coupe? Or is it that we parents have enabled this batch of kids so much, that they lack the independence and skills to make it on their own?
Dissatisfaction with the college experience at the end of the first semester is not uncommon. Several national studies suggest that one third of college students do not return for their sophomore year of college, though there is little data regarding how many of those students leave at the midpoint of their first year. However, both college personnel and first year students know that there are many students who will not be back for second semester.
There are good days and bad days for everyone, of course. College students are no different. As parents, we hope that our college students will have more good days than bad. But sometimes, your college student may hit a string of bad days, or may seem particularly unhappy with their college experience. This is one of those times when, as parents, we may feel most helpless. In some ways, we are. Your student may lack the ability to work through the situation him or herself. To find ways to make lemonade out of their lemons.
Many of today’s kids come from a house of entitlement and feel as if they need instant gratification. They move into a dorm room that is less than plush, it definitely does not resemble the comforts of home. They decorate to the nines and try to settle in to their new residence. As much as we try, it will never be home. Mom is not in the kitchen making their favorite meal, fresh towels are not in their community bathroom and they are living with a complete stranger. Our kids think that instantly they will be settled. It takes time, patients and a lot of social networking. This is something most didn’t have to do in high school. As parents, we need to allow them to be uncomfortable and to work through the process.
Kids today have a difficult time “fending for themselves.” This is due in part by our generation of parents who coddled and hovered during those teenaged years. Many of our kids did not learn the skills they need to be independent and spread their wings. Parents rushed to their child’s aid with teachers, coaches and homework assignments. Now, living away from home and not having that helicopter parent leaves our college students flailing in the wind. This contributes to the lonely and helpless feelings.
Your child needs to have a sense of belonging on campus or the feeling of “fit.” Working or being off campus can impact that feeling. Many students who spend a significant numbers of hours off campus, either due to work or outside activities, (more than twenty hours per week) often feel less satisfied with their college experience because they are less connected.
Social isolation also makes a big impact. Students who feel alone are obviously unhappier. Even on a very large campus, it is possible for your student to feel isolated from others. These students need to be encouraged to join activities. That may be an intramural sport, Greek life or campus government. In many cases, student dissatisfaction stems less from academic programs, residence hall conditions, or activities than from feelings of connection and fit. Encourage your child to do all that he or she can to find and connect with others.
When considering a return home, perhaps one of the first and most important things that parents need to determine is how certain their student is about that decision. Is he absolutely firm that he will not return, or is he floating the idea to measure your reaction and perhaps seek your advice? Your task will is less to tell her what to do and more to help her explore her own feelings, abilities, and options. Whatever is decided in the end, your student must be comfortable with and committed to the decision.
Some things we can do as parents:
- Listen. Take time just to hear what your student has to say and reflect his or her thoughts back. They may just need you to be a sympathetic ear.
- Help your child realize that they are not alone. Many students feel the same way at various points in their college career. Although he or she may still be unhappy at the moment, understanding that this is a normal phase may help to put things in perspective.
- Help them determine the validity of their complaints. Are their expectations realistic? Is their problem chronic or a one-time issue?
- Insist on honesty. Insist that your student be honest both with you and with him or herself. Don’t let them make excuses. Don’t let them gloss over real issues. Help them take a full and honest look at the situation and their place in it.
- Encourage time and patience. Sometimes issues or situations may need time to run their course. If your student is unhappy at the midpoint of a first semester and talks about transferring or dropping out, try to insist that they finish the year. A second semester is often very different. Giving the experience a chance may be all that is needed. Countless students talk about transfer during that first semester and wouldn’t consider leaving their school by the end of the year.
- Help your student reflect on their attitude and actions. What are they doing to correct or improve the situation? Have they made an effort to connect or talk to someone on campus or change their approach? Help them think about whether they are working to improve the situation.
- Consider a strategy or action plan. Rather than just waiting it out, or continuing to be miserable, help your student create a plan of attack. Taking action, even in small ways, helps your student feel empowered and in control.
- If your student is considering a transfer, help them consider whether they will be taking their problems with them. Are the issues truly with the school or with themselves? What would be different somewhere else?
- Help your student think about the satisfied and happy students on campus. What is it about those happier students that make them happy? What are they doing differently? They are at the same institution and are having a better experience. Why? Are there behaviors that your student might adopt?
- Don’t set your student up with unrealistic expectations. Many of us, as college parents, may be guilty of telling our students that, “These are the best years of your life!” They may not be. Help your student realize that there will be some wonderful experiences, but there will also be some lows. College is about hard work, meeting new people (some of whom your student may not like), navigating a new world, and learning independence and responsibility. These factors can make demands on students that may, at times, seem overwhelming.
- Lastly, consider whether this college or university was truly your child’s choice or your own. Many of today’s parents press their children into making the college choice that most appeals to the parent, rather than that which feels right to the child. The same can be said for college majors, dormitories, and even first-semester courses. If your son or daughter never wanted to attend this institution, their unhappiness there may be a sign that they need to make the choice that is right for them.
The college experience is a roller coaster for most students. The good times are particularly exhilarating and the lows are particularly deep. The student who is prepared for the emotional changes will better weather those changes. Although, as a parent, you cannot change the experiences, you can help your student learn from, value, and grow through the experiences.