Parenting college students
These past few weeks have been filled with young adults and their families coming in because coming home from college has been an emotional roller coaster. I have seen kids who are home sick and don’t want to go back, kids who have been smoking pot all day every day at school, kids who have had sex for the first time, kids who failed this past semester, and kids who are experiencing significant anxiety and depression. I would say by and large the parents that I have seen did not realize the extent to which their child was struggling. So, I thought I would take the time to go through what we have been doing to address the many issues that have come up this month and hope that you can gain something from other parents experiences.
How can I help my college aged child?
Annie is an 18 year old college freshman out of state. I have seen her for a few years and while at college we used tele-medicine sessions to touch base a few times. So when Annie scheduled to see me in person on this winter break I was ready to hear more about finals, friends and being home. But when I opened the waiting room door her mom and dad were with her. I was surprised to see them and welcomed everyone back while thinking, oh boy, something big is up.
Annie’s parents started off by saying that Annie has been recluse in her room and that they often find her crying and saying that she can’t breathe. Her parents were naturally concerned and uncertain about what to do. When I asked Annie what was going on, she said that she was often moody at school and that she felt nervous and worried a lot. She said that finals were really stressful for her and that she pulled a few all nighters by drinking lots of coffee and then not feeling well. She had made some friends but found herself feeling homesick. A lot of this sounded fairly typical so I asked to spend some time with her alone to gain a better understanding of what else was going on.
Once Annie’s parents left the room she shared that she drank a lot of alcohol and smoked pot almost daily while at school. She described feeling like she wanted to numb herself. Once we did an evaluation, it became clear that her pre-existing lower level of anxiety had been exacerbated by the stress of being away at school. She had some specific anxiety symptoms since a young age but through therapy and the support of her family she was able to manage it. Once she went to school, she started to experience the common co-morbid condition of depression and the anxiety became generalized and unmanageable. Annie was experiencing daily anxiety symptoms and when she had a panic attack her roommate suggested she try smoking pot to “chill her out.” Annie reported that it did help and so that is how she self-medicated throughout the semester. Now that at home, she didn’t have access to pot as easily and knew that if her parents suspected that she was using it they would be angry and maybe not even allow her to return to school.
Once we made more sense of what was going on, I encouraged Annie to share some of the important parts of what was happening with her parents. I let her know that it would be difficult to get her what she needed if we didn’t include them. Annie agreed to this and we asked them to join us again. When her parents came back I went over with them that Annie’s history of anxiety symptoms have become exacerbated now that at school and now she also has symptoms of depression such as irritability, low motivation, weight loss and hopelessness. This was surprising to her parents because they said that every time they spoke or texted with Annie she was going out with friends and seemed to be having a good time. Annie explained that while that was true, she was often “partying” too much and making some poor choices. We left it at that but I think her parents understood enough and didn’t push to get more details.
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