What can parents do to help their child successfully transition from home to University?
It is a sad fact that too many children at University are committing suicide without their parents being aware that there was even anything wrong, and even though very often their child has been seen by the University counselling service.
So what can a parent do to ensure their child has the resilience to cope and, if not, the willingness to share their suffering with you before it all gets too much and they feel so overwhelmed that suicide seems the only solution?
There are a number of reasons for this horrendous state of affairs; this failure to inform. The first is that in Universities it is the case that in law your 18 year old child is deemed to be an adult and therefore entitled to have their mental health issues kept confidential by the University counselling services and so not available to be shared with you (their parents) unless the child expressly consents otherwise. From experience in a University counselling service, students are encouraged to have agency for their actions and to be treated as adults and not be “infantilised”. Furthermore the counselling offered often extends to only three sessions, and often comes too late with some students waiting months to see a counsellor even where there has been a GP referral.
Another reason is the child’s fear that any admission of an inability to cope will be seen as weakness and failure by their friends and family and so they tell no-one.
So what is it within the parent’s power to do?
First of all, it is essential that parents understand the types of pressure a child today is likely to face in all universities. This is often the first time the child has lived away from home where they most likely felt they were in a safe, comfortable and familiar environment. The chances are that before leaving home the child had very little personal responsibility for their day to day lives; their daily lives were often sheltered, scheduled, structured, chaperoned and timetabled to the nth degree. It is therefore a huge transition for the child. Home, family, friends and structure are left behind, the brilliant self confident big fish in the little school pond becomes just one more fish in a very big pond. This is often a great shock to students who suddenly feel terribly out of their depth stressing about their intellect, their ability to fit in, being liked and their ability to achieve and meet their own unrelenting standards and parents' high expectations of them.
Add to that worries about the amount of work suddenly demanded of them in an institution that leaves them to get on with it themselves, the shock of lack of structure and new found independence, the pressures to meet deadlines, the competitive ethos, social media pressure, juggling finances, an inability to know how to feed themselves, coping with intimate relationship problems, bullying, peer pressure, family issues at home, disabilities, ongoing mental health problems prior to leaving home, having to work part time to make ends meet, gender and identity issues, a belief that the world is a dangerous place, an inability to be able to handle confrontation and dissent in case it causes offence, and an inability to manage different points of view to theirs. The list goes on and on.
All of these things, if not addressed openly by parents and child prior to them leaving home, are the types of things that lead the child into difficulties. They are likely to become poor sleepers, worried, anxious or depressed, and they may start missing lectures or isolating themselves. They may become very angry. They may start self-harming as a way to relieve the pressure they feel they are under and to feel they are in control of something and ultimately, without help and support, take their own lives.
It is essential that the child feels able to communicate openly with you without feeling judged, weak or failing. There needs to be an environment of trust and respect. They need to know that they are precious to you and that their happiness and their well-being is more important than anything else to you, that you do not expect your child to be superhuman, because if the child knows these things most of these problems can be avoided. It is essential to have open lines of communication.
As a parent, you can help ensure that your child familiarises themselves with all of the support services available to them at University, and encourage them to be open to accessing them knowing they are not being judged.
You can do everything you can by ensuring that they know how to take care of themselves, for example by registering with their GP. You can emphasise the importance of making friends and creating a social network, getting plenty of good sleep, exercise, rest time, eating healthily, managing money and managing their time effectively. The absolute necessity of staying connected.