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How to Raise a Sensitive Issue or Approach a Student

As you likely are aware, the pressure of college, including major projects, midterms, and final exams can lead to students feeling very stressed. Academic and emotional challenges may become evident through decreased academic performance, expressed dissatisfaction with the University, irritability, mood swings, and changes in how they relate to you as their parents or concerned family members.

It is important for you to periodically check in with your student about how he or she is doing personally and academically. You know your student better than anyone and you may pick up on some cues that your son or daughter is having a difficult time when others may not. While it is typical for many young adults to seek independence from their families and avoid discussing things that are not going well, students do need the emotional support and love that only the people in parental roles in their lives can provide. Here are some suggestions on talking with your student:

  • Choose a time to talk when things are not rushed, and where your student can talk to you privately.
  • Don’t avoid bringing up the subject of stress and mental health concerns. Acknowledge that you know this can be a stressful time of the semester and ask directly how they are handling the stress and if they are OK. If you have reason to be concerned express your concern in specific, nonjudgmental ways. Be honest and direct; say what you mean and mean what you say.
  • The most helpful messages you can offer your student are “I love you,” “I believe in you,” “I care about how you are doing,” and if your student is struggling, “I want you to get some help.”
  • If your student shares some difficult information with you, the most helpful response is to really listen to what he or she is saying. It can be quite challenging to listen without interrupting or letting our own internal thoughts interfere but it is important to really attend to what your student is saying. It is helpful to acknowledge that what your student is thinking and feeling about their situation is their experience, even if you have a different perspective.
  • Offer non-judgmental support. You may have your own internal reactions which are completely natural for a parent to have (such as not approving a choice your student made or feeling angry that your student is not doing well academically). But expressing those in the moment to your student is more likely to shut down the communication than lead to helpful support and problem solving.
  • Be knowledgeable of and encourage your student to take advantage of the many resources available at the U of M to help students succeed. These can range from academic support through such programs as the Smart Learning Commons to Student Mental Health.
  • Offer to help your student in whatever ways you can to help them cope.
  • Communicate hope by reminding your student that there are always options, you believe they can get through this difficult time, and that things tend to look different with time and action.

Staff at University Counseling & Consulting Services (612-624-3323) are available to consult with parents and family members who are concerned about their students.

This information was compiled by Glenn Hirsch, Ph.D., L.P based in part on information developed through the Provost’s Committee on Mental Health and available at Student Mental Health.