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Breaking through the walls of depression and anxiety: Considerations for parents of college students

From the Winter 2006 Parent Newsletter

“My son has told me that he is feeling depressed, but he won’t talk to me about it. He says that talking to his mother or me only makes it worse—that we stress him out and make him feel even more down. How can we get him to open up to us, and give him the help he needs?”

In any given year, approximately one in five Americans will experience a mental health issue of some kind, and mood disorders are among the most common. Given the many personal and academic stressors and developmental challenges faced by college students, it is probably more realistic for parents to expect that their children will experience mood concerns at some point in college than to expect an anxiety- or depression- free four years.

Nevertheless, finding ways to support and help students experiencing depression or anxiety is one of the more difficult challenges faced by parents. Witnessing your child struggling is difficult enough, but it is often compounded by the frustrating helplessness of not being able to break through a seemingly impenetrable wall created by the moods themselves.

What’s the goal?
First connection, then collaboration. Before a parent can help a student develop a strategy to deal with depression or anxiety, a connection must be formed. As humans we have both rational and emotional parts of our selves. When sharing concerns about depression or anxiety, students are usually sending an emotional message: “I’m overwhelmed! I can’t do it. I’ll never make it in college!” Though well-intentioned, parents often offer rational responses: “Don’t worry; you can do it; you’ll be fine; go and talk to someone.” While getting to rational steps and actions is the ultimate goal, moving too quickly can derail efforts for meaningful connection and collaboration. When emotional messages are responded to with rational responses, disconnection occurs. Start where your student is—with the emotions.

Connect and collaborate...How?
If you’re thinking “easier said than done,” you’re correct. Nevertheless, thinking about your response to your student’s mood concerns as having the following two stages can help you approach the process with more confidence and achieve hoped for results.

Stage I: Go with emotions first—make a connection.
As I mentioned earlier, in helping your child you are likely to be connecting with their emotional self first. So go along with this—there will be plenty of time to explore rational solutions later. Depression and anxiety are painful experiences for students and can lead them to feel alone and stigmatized—“I’m the only student going through this”—and discouraged—“I’ll never get over this; my academic career is over!” You will need to resist the strong temptation to go with rational reassurance—“You’re not the only one; you will get over this”—and to stay with the emotion—“I can hear how alone and discouraged you are feeling about this.”

This process does not make sense, because “sense” is a rational process and you are encountering emotions. Be patient. As a general rule, until your son or daughter is assured that you are okay staying with the feelings or emotions, they are less likely to move into rational solutions.

So what can you do during this stage? Try the following:

  • Be available—let your child know that they can call you and that you are available to them; if you must be out of touch, let them know ahead of time, and when you’ll be available again; designate someone who can fill in for you if possible.
  • Be consistent—if you say you will do something, follow through with your commitment.
  • Be emotionally tuned in—as noted before, let them know you can hear the emotional experience. Reflect the emotional experience back: “That does sound overwhelming—frustrating too. I can see how this has been difficult for you.”

Stage II: Collaborate on a plan
Okay, so you’ve done what may be the hardest work for you in this process—listening and connecting while holding back on planning and doing. The next stage is going to be relatively easier—making plans to access and use resources and supports. Some considerations:

  • Avoid doing nothing—while it is important to honor Stage I, doing things is the best antidote to improved emotional well-being. As you are doing Stage I work, occasionally test whether your son or daughter is ready to transition into Stage II. This may be a fairly straightforward proposition—“I appreciate us talking about what you’ve been going through. Do you think you’re ready to talk about some things you can do to start feeling better?” Be open to any response—in some cases, you will continue to connect on the emotions; in others, you will start talking about planning.
  • Stage II resources

    University Counseling & Consulting Services
    Minneapolis campus
    109 Eddy Hall
    192 Pillsbury Drive S.E.
    Phone: 612-624-3323

    St. Paul campus
    199 Coffey Hall
    1420 Eckles Avenue
    Phone: 612-624-3323

    Services: individual, group, and walk-in counseling; consultation and referral

    Boynton Mental Health Clinic
    410 Church Street S.E.
    Phone: 612-625-8400

    Services: individual, group, and crisis counseling; medication evaluation and treatment; consultation and referral

  • Avoid moving too fast—Stage II often offers more hope or encouragement to parents than it does to students. Be mindful of the tendency to want to do too much. For example, if you identify three places on campus where your son or daughter can get help you may want him or her to visit all three as soon as possible, whereas visiting one as a start may be a more realistic goal or expectation.
  • Celebrate the small steps—in keeping with the first point, be mindful of conveying subtle frustrations or disappointment if your child’s efforts aren’t 100 percent initially. Honor that he or she has moved toward DOING something and is not still stuck in the emotions.
  • Consult, consult, consult—remember that you are not alone in this process. If you do not know what to do or what resources are available to you, ask. Nobody expects that parents should know how to handle depression or anxiety when it affects their children. Give yourself permission to not know but to take responsibility for finding out.
  • Expect some cycling between rational planning and emotional expression—parents often express frustration when their son or daughter has a lapse back into Stage I emotions. Keep in mind that lapses are just that—lapses. Go back to Stage I, reconnect, and return to Stage II. Over time, lapses become less frequent, shorter, and less intense. Be patient and use your own supports. Stay with your plan.