Parents Can Help College Students With the End-Of-Semester Stress Meltdown

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College parenting is difficult.  Anyone who has a student headed to college, in college, or recently out of college has realized just how difficult the college parenting job can be.  One of the most difficult things about this phase of parenting is feeling helpless at times as you watch your student struggle with something.  One of the times when we often see this happening is during that stressful end-of semester period. Parents may see and hear their student experiencing what appears to be a meltdown in response to the pressure and stress that occurs at the end of the semester.

 Although we may often feel helpless, parents can be helpful and supportive in several ways.  In this article, we’d like to examine the end-of-semester stress a bit more closely.  It may be helpful for us, as parents, to be reminded of exactly what students are feeling and experiencing at this point in the college year.

 What causes student stress?

The stress that students feel as the end of the semester nears is very real and is often overwhelming.  And this stress is felt by both the best students and struggling students alike.  Students often realize that there is more left to do than they realized.  They recognize that they may have procrastinated on some projects more than they thought.  They worry about deadlines, final papers, projects, presentations, and final exams. 

 In addition to all of the academic pressure which students feel near the end of the semester, they may also be experiencing other end-of-year stress during the spring semester.  Your student may be worrying about a summer job or internship and trying to finalize plans.  Your student, especially your freshman, may be apprehensive about returning to live at home after experiencing the freedom of life away at college.  Your student may be sad about leaving college friends, especially a possible new boyfriend or girlfriend, for the summer.  Your student may still be trying to deal with aspects of the next academic year – housing, class schedule, internship or campus job.  At this point in the semester and year, your student may definitely feel overwhelmed and out of control.

 What does stress look like?

Different people react to stress differently.  Students are no different.  Some students will thrive on the stress and adrenaline of the end of the term, while other students may feel overwhelmed and begin to crumble.  Parents can help students recognize the possible symptoms of stress so that students can better recognize when they may need to address the situation.  Of course your student may be feeling overwhelmed, but ask her whether she is feeling too overwhelmed to be able to cope.  Is she more emotional than usual?  Is she experiencing headaches or stomachaches constantly?  Is she having difficulty focusing and paying attention?  Helping your student analyze the degree of her stress may be a good beginning.

 How can parents help?

If you sense that your college student may be experiencing a stress meltdown, you may feel helpless.  The reality is that, on one level, you can’t help and you need to let your student deal with her situation.  You can’t take the exam, give the speech, or say goodbye to friends.  Even if you could do some things such as follow up about housing or schedule, you shouldn’t.  This stress is part of the college experience. 

 However, as a parent, coaching from the sidelines, there are ways that you can help your student at this difficult time.  Here are a few things to consider, and possibly to discuss with your student.

  • Give your student some space.  This may be one of the most difficult things to do.  You want to jump in and help.  You know that you have advice that your student should hear.  But your student may just need some time and/or space to feel independent.  Try to listen carefully to the messages that you are getting and decide when it’s best to weigh in and when it’s best to step back.
  • Listen when your student needs to vent.  Remember that phone call you may have gotten early in the freshman year when your student was overwhelmed and possibly homesick?  Remember how she just needed to unload what she was feeling and all you could do was to listen?  You may need those listening skills again now.  Your student may not need you to actually do anything, but she may need you to listen while she complains about what she has to do and how she will never get it done.  Once she’s shared her feelings, she may be ready to move on and tackle whatever it is.  Remember that listening is important.  You are helping your student just by being there.
  • Help your student realize that stress is not all bad.  A certain amount of stress and challenge keeps us sharp and focused. It helps us manage and deal with the demands placed on us.  The problems arise when we begin to feel out of control.  Help your student try to control his stress rather than seeing stress as the enemy.
  • Help your student recognize that he is not alone.  Most students feel some degree of pressure at this time.  Even those students who appear to have everything under control are probably feeling challenged.  It may also help your student to recognize that faculty members, too, feel pressure at this time of semester.  All of those papers, presentations and exams need to be graded!  Professors may feel that there is still too much material that needs to be covered in class.  It may be helpful for your student to recognize that everyone around him is feeling as stressed as he is.
  • Recommend that your student make a list of everything that she needs to do – and then prioritize the list.  Your student may be in denial about the amount of work, and it feels as though putting it on paper will only make it worse.  However, knowing what you have to face is usually helpful.  Prioritizing the list helps your student create an action plan.  Once she has a plan, she has a place to begin.  Sometimes beginning is the hardest step.
  • Recommend that your student create a schedule and use all of his time management skills.  Blocking out what he needs to do and when he will do it will help him feel more in control of what he needs to accomplish. This will also help him to decide what he can change – and what he can’t change.  He will need to let go of those things which can’t be changed.
  • Remind your student not to ignore her health.  Your student may not get eight hours of sleep a night and eat three full meals a day at this time of semester, but remind her that she will be more productive if she pays attention to her body and at least tries to get some sleep, eat some healthy food, and get a bit of exercise.
  • Suggest that your student maintain – or break – routine.  For some students, maintaining a regular routine is helpful.  He can settle in and let auto-pilot guide him through the end of the semester.  Other students may need a break in the normal routine to shake them up a bit.  Perhaps studying in a new place will help.  Perhaps writing the paper in the library rather than the usual dorm room may help.  Your student should consider whether the norm – or a change – will be most helpful.
  • Encourage your student to investigate what the college can offer that might help.  Are there course review sessions?  Is there extra tutoring or writing help available?  Does the counseling center offer extra counseling sessions?  Are there special stress-reducing activities such as yoga or meditation?  Encourage your student to take advantage of any and every bit of the support system that may be available.
  • Be patient – and encourage your student to be patient.  As difficult and overwhelming as this time may be, it is a short-lived phase.  Whatever happens, the semester will soon be over.  You and your student both need to be patient with each other and with yourselves.  Tensions are probably high, nerves raw, and extra patience will help everyone.  This sprint to the finish will get your student over the finish line.

 For college students, the end of the semester is one of the most challenging times of the year.  For college parents, the tension of feeling helpless may almost seem worse.  Be patient with your student, take a few minutes to recognize how far she may have come since last fall, and continue to let her know how proud you are of her abilities.

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