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Countdown to college: What if your freshman isn't happy?

Countdown to college: What if your freshman isn't happy?

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While some college students are living comfortably in their parents' homes, others have been on campus, living in dorms and having a semblance of a traditional college experience. What happens if they're not happy?

Maybe they're unhappy living at home and attending what many refer to as "high school 2.0" entirely on screens, or unhappy with campus life (or lack thereof). Yes, COVID-19 has affected every college student. Many have redefined their priorities. If a student is unhappy, the question is whether to return in January, take a gap semester or a gap year, or transfer to a different college altogether. These topics are often front and center over Thanksgiving.

We send them off with high expectations, but what happens when your freshman is unhappy? Everybody knows that college is supposed to be "the happiest four years of your life." Not too much pressure on an 18-year-old, huh? Is this the time to revert back to being a helicopter parent, hovering over the campus and scooping up your child to bring them home? Probably not.

If the issues are mostly social, the initial feelings of awkwardness usually wear off quickly. Students tend to find a group, whether that means hanging out with students from their high school, fellow residents of their dorm or colleagues from a club they've joined. That's the good news. The bad news is that the latching on, pairing off and formation of "freshmen herds" usually happens quickly, and some students feel left out from the get-go.

If a student is unhappy, it's often more about fitting in socially than worrying about academics. Classes may be bigger and even more boring than in high school, but not being invited out for pizza ranks higher in the hierarchy of concerns.

Parents might get a "roommate from hell" telephone call with a desperate plea to let your student drop out and come home. Most student counseling services advise parents to listen, listen some more and offer constructive suggestions: speaking to a resident adviser, seeking counseling at the university health center, joining new clubs or organizations, or stepping outside their comfort zone by initiating conversations with new people.

Parents need to help students identify what isn't working for them. Is it their roommate, their friends, the social atmosphere, classes, the dorm, the food, the weather? Some students simply made a bad choice and selected a college that wasn't a good fit for them academically or socially.

There are few things more tortuous than listening to an unhappy child pour his or her heart out on the telephone. If you start receiving those dreaded calls on a nightly basis, it may be time for intervention. However, unless parents are seriously concerned about their student's safety or mental health, the best advice is usually to tough it out at least through the first semester and hopefully through the entire freshman year.

Sometimes, simply telling students that they aren't alone and that most freshmen are going through similar self-doubt is enough to get them through the moment. A friend shared a story about her freshman daughter, who called crying that she was miserable and wanted to come home. My friend was torn, but she calmed down her daughter, and they agreed to talk more the next day. The mom said she barely slept that night and was dreading the call the following day. She waited and waited, and there was no call. Finally, she tentatively dialed her daughter. To my friend's amusement, her daughter told her she'd had a great evening, loved school and barely remembered the conversation from the day before.

This is when we all need to remember that they have grown up quite a bit, and yes, they are still teenagers.

Omaha World-Herald: Inspired Living

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