Ever increasing competition, constant pressure to perform, no room for errors, and everything on display — this is the typical life of a college student. And what used to be a single bad grade is often now felt as a complete and total devastation.
For parents, the experience is no easier. Like their children, parents are stressed — with their own lives and with the quandary of how to prepare their children for a world that parents find difficult to navigate themselves.
“These multiple forces often come to a head in the crucible of college life and immediately thereafter, when many stress-induced emotional problems first appear,” write B. Janet Hibbs and Anthony Rostain.
In their new book, The Stressed Years of Their Lives: Helping Your Kid Survive and Thrive During Their College Years, Hibbs and Rostain offer a comprehensive guide for parents and children to cope with the challenges that the college years bring, and in the best circumstances, find strength in them.
More than half of all college students report overwhelming anxiety, more than a third report depression that affects their academic performance, and 45 percent, at some point in the past year, have felt things were hopeless.
One contributor to these numbers, Hibbs and Rostain tell us, is “the fact that most psychiatric disorders show up from ages 14 to 26 — possibly the most tumultuous decade in a person’s life.”
Responding to fears about their children’s wellbeing, and often overblown headlines about the dangers of college partying, parents can fall prey to three pitfalls — over-preparation, over-parenting and over-investment.
Hibbs and Rostain write, “The linear view of preparation concentrates overwhelmingly on intellectual skills and academic achievement. Parents can fall into the trap of vicariously memorizing and — be honest, now — sometimes even crowing about our children’s AP grades or standardized test scores.”
The result is a child who is not prepared to fail, to face setbacks or to be anything but above–average.
Making matters even more challenging, the adolescent brain is wired for thrills and risk-taking. “The relative immaturity of adolescent frontal lobes means that behavioral restraint — thinking through the consequences of an action before taking it — get ‘outvoted’ by the mechanisms that facilitate reward-driven behavior,” write Hibbs and Rostain.
Moreover, adolescents are often not prepared to cope with challenges. The authors describe the case of Harry, an aspiring track star who, after injuring his hamstring, began to ruminate about his future, skip class and turn to marijuana to feel calmer.
Despite a family history of depression, his parents had not ever talked to him about mental health. Instead, the indirect message he’d received as a child was: It’s not okay to feel down.
What Harry needed, like many college kids, was a way to navigate challenges. What his parents needed was a way to recognize his struggle, not minimize it, try to solve it for him, or simply tell him to “man up.”
While the goal is a successful emergence into adulthood, many children — especially men — suffer from failure to launch. Hibbs and Rostain write, “Millennial and Gen Z men are faring worse than women, with more at home, for longer time periods.”
What these children need is better coping skills, such as the ability to recognize problematic coping behavior, awareness about the triggers that precede the behavior, insight into their behavior, motivation, commitment and skills to change, and the resilience to recover from a relapse.
“Unconditional parental love is an unspoken bargain: in exchange for love, education and the fulfillment of his material needs, my child will return my love by meeting my age-appropriate expectations for maturity leading to independence,” write Hibbs and Rostain.
Safety nets for children on campus are being fortified every day, and by educating themselves about what supports are available to help their children, parents can partner with school programs to better support their children.
Hibbs and Rostain write, “Both the school and the ‘parental units’ are united in their concerns. Both parties are keenly interested in seeing the younger set learn, grow, mature and gain skills in both cognitive and noncognitive domains; both parties hope students will make the most of what the campus has to offer, and both wish to avert harm at any cost.”
Faced with uncertain futures, unrelenting pressure to perform and a world that leaves no room for reflection, insight or contemplation, The Stressed Years of Their Lives is an invaluable guide for overwhelmed parents and their stressed-out children.
The Stressed Years of Their Lives: Helping Your Kid Survive and Thrive During Their College Years
St. Martin’s Press, April 2019
Hardcover, 336 pages