When Your College Student Is Unhappy

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There are good days and bad days for everyone, of course.  College students are no different.  We hope that our college students will have more good days than bad days.  But sometimes, your college student may hit a string of bad days, or may seem particularly unhappy with his college experience.  This is one of those times when, as college parents, we may feel most helpless.  And the reality is that, in some ways, we are.  Your student may need to work through the situation himself.  But you can be there, providing that all-important constant support, and perhaps also provide a bit of guidance.

 Once you’ve determined that your student’s unhappiness is just that, and not something more serious that needs intervention or counseling, you can begin to help your student examine and think about the sources of her unhappiness with her college experience.  As a starter, it may help if your student understands that it is very normal to feel a low point a few weeks into the semester.  The novelty of a new semester is over, the reality of midterms, papers, and expectations hits. The glow of new friendships may also be wearing off.   It feels as though things might be better almost anywhere else.

 There are three primary factors that can affect how students feel about their college experiences on a particular campus.  As you help your student reflect, it may help him to consider his feelings about some of these. 

  • Sense of belonging on campus or the feeling of “fit”.  If your student is unhappy, it may be because he doesn’t feel that he fits into the campus community.  Can he make any changes or discover new areas or groups on campus?
  • Working off campus.  Many students who work significant numbers of hours off campus (more than twenty hours per week) feel less satisfied with their college experience because they are less connected.  Can your student adjust work hours?
  • Feeling of isolation.  Students who feel alone are obviously more unhappy.  Even on a very large campus, it is possible for your student to feel isolated from others like him.  Has he ventured past his dorm room?  Has he joined groups or organizations of people with similar interests?  Has he made connections with faculty or staff members?

In many cases, student dissatisfaction stems less from academic programs, residence hall conditions, or activities than from feelings of connection and fit.  Encourage your student to do all that he can to find and connect with others.

 So what, specifically might you do as a parent to help your unhappy student?  Keeping in mind that, once again, this is your student’s issue to confront, here are a few suggestions that may help you help your student.

  • Listen.  Take time just to hear what your student has to say and reflect his thoughts back to him.  He may just need you to be a sympathetic ear.
  • Help him realize that he is not alone.  Many students feel the same way at various points in their college career.  Although he may still be unhappy at the moment, understanding that this is a normal phase may help to put things in perspective.
  • Help her determine the validity of her complaints.  Are her expectations realistic?  Is her problem chronic or a one-time issue?
  • Insist on honesty.  Insist that your student be honest both with you and with herself.  Don’t let her make excuses.  Don’t let her gloss over real issues.  Help her take a full and honest look at the situation and her place in it.
  • Encourage time and patience.  Sometimes issues or situations may need time to run their course.  If your student is unhappy at the midpoint of a first semester and talks about transferring or dropping out, try to insist that he finish the semester, or even the year.  A second semester is often very different.  Giving the experience a chance may be all that is needed.  Countless students talk about transfer during that first semester and wouldn’t consider leaving their school by the end of the year.
  • Help your student reflect on his attitude and actions.  What is he doing to correct or improve the situation?  Has he made an effort to connect or talk to someone on campus or change his approach?  Help him think about whether he is working to improve the situation.
  • Consider a strategy or action plan.  Rather than just waiting it out, or continuing to be miserable, help your student create a plan of attack.  Taking action, even in small ways, helps your student feel empowered and in control.
  • If your student is considering a transfer, help her consider whether she will be taking her problems with her.  Are the issues truly with the school, or with her?  What would be different somewhere else?
  • Help your student think about the satisfied and happy students on campus.  What is it about those happier students that make them happy?  What are they doing differently?  They are at the same institution and are having a better experience.  Why?  Are there behaviors that your student might adopt?
  • Don’t set your student up with unrealistic expectations.  Many of us, as college parents, may be guilty of telling our students that “these are the best years of your life . . .”  They may not be.  Help your student realize that there will be some wonderful experiences, but there will also be some lows.  College is about hard work, meeting new people (some of whom your student may not like), navigating a new world, learning independence and responsibility.  These factors can make demands on students that may, at times, seem overwhelming.

 The college experience is a roller coaster for most students.  The good times are particularly exhilarating and the lows are particularly deep.  The student who is prepared for the emotional changes will better weather those changes.  Although, as a parent, you cannot change the experiences, you can help your student learn from, value, and grow through the experiences. 

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