Life Transitions: College

Life Transitions: College

Your teenager has worked hard throughout high school and finally been accepted to college. There are cheers but deep down probably a lot of fears too—- the world your teenager knows (home, sense of belonging, community, childhood friends) will shortly become turned upside down. College is a place of growth, adventure, independence, and learning—many say the best period of their life. At the same time, the stresses from this transition can be a period where mental health and substance abuse problems emerge.

Mental Health/Substance Abuse Issues

Worry and stress are typical during this transition—through adversity, young people learn and grow, however, sometimes overwhelming stress leads to mental health problems. If there is a history of mental illness or substance abuse in your teenager’s family, the risks are even higher. Some common mental health issues that arise during college are eating disorders, substance abuse disorders, depression, anxiety; less common is bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and personality disorders.
Here is a list of stressors and behaviors to be mindful of:

Social Stressors

Your child has to rebuild their social network. This is not always the easiest thing to do. Pressures to fit in can be high. Doubts about their uniqueness, self-worth, and personality might arise. Rejections and losses can hit particularly hard without having their supports from home around them. Maybe your child used to have a best friend to help with disappointments who is no longer as available.


If your child is spending most of their time in their dormitory room alone or if they do not return messages or pick up the phone (for lack of a good reason), this is cause for concern. Loneliness is associated with many physical and mental health problems, including depression.


Striking a balance between academics, play, sleep, eat, work, and social life can be tough. Your child may not be able to get the same grades they did in high school, which can lead to feelings of frustration and thoughts they are a failure. If they always self-identified as “smart,” a drop in grades, although normal, can feel like a tremendous loss. Further, your child may realize they need to work much harder to obtain the grades they did in high school, ignoring their core needs, which makes them vulnerable to physical and mental health problems.


With all of these exciting changes, young people may put sleep as secondary. Too much or little sleep could be an indicator or contributor to a mental health problem. Ask how much your child is sleeping. Do they have trouble falling asleep? Do they wake up during the night? Do they have nightmares? Are they sleeping too much? Do they feel like they do not need to sleep?

Trauma/Sexual Assault

One out of six females and one out of thirty three males become victims of an attempted or completed rape during their lifetime (RAINN, 2018). Often, the assault is something they conceal out of fear or shame, most of the time they know the perpetrator. The symptoms following a sexual assault can vary greatly, but some warning signs would be a drop in grades/school attendance, isolation, depressive symptoms, increased aggression and irritability, being “in the clouds” a lot, nightmares, increased sexual promiscuity, sleep problems, avoiding certain people or places that are reminders of the trauma, and anxiety symptoms.

Substance Abuse Problems

College is frequently a time when a young person begins to experiment with alcohol and drugs. If there is a family history of substance abuse problems or if your child has a preexisting mental health problem, they are more vulnerable to substance abuse. Behavior that could indicate a substance abuse problem could be a significant drop in grades and attendance, doing things the young person regrets later (getting a DUI, having unprotected sex), failing to meet other obligations, being in a social group that relies on substances to have a good time. If your child does not have healthy ways of coping with stress, they become more vulnerable to substance abuse.

What can be done?

The earlier your child recognizes and seeks help during their struggles, the better the outcome. Most universities have counseling services they can turn to or can provide referrals to outside providers. A therapist can help guide and support your child during their struggles. A therapist can also provide referrals to other providers, if necessary.
Parents can keep an open line of communication, be non-judgmental, refrain from comparisons, focus on the present issue, use good listening skills, share experiences of their own struggles and help guide their child to appropriate resources, all the while respecting their self-determination. (e.g. if a child turns down your offer to contact student behavioral health, respect that.)
Too much parental involvement can reinforce a child’s feelings of failure and inadequacy (e.g., I can never do things right on my own! My parents will always think of me as a child!). If your child studies in another part of the country, offer to visit them. They may say no. Let your child decide when and for how long you stay. Offer your child to come home during academic breaks. If your child is seeing a counselor or therapist, see if you can be involved in some sessions by phone or by person. Develop a line of communication with your child’s friends if they approve.
Ultimately, your child is an adult and has to be treated as such. Top down efforts to control and fix situation, typically do not turn out well. Support your child in listening and finding out what’s most helpful in overcoming their challenges.