College is the last major institution that provides a transition from “adulting-lite” to the autonomy, financial independence, and responsibilities of full adulthood. Yet, while many parents fondly recall college as the “best years of your life,” these years arguably entail some of life’s most challenging developmental tasks.
The stress youth feel begins long before college. In the time-compressed span of just one generation, rapid economic and societal changes have created a simple and powerful cultural narrative that pummels parents, educators, and youth alike with the constant drumbeat of harsher, more competitive realities of globalization, economic scarcity, and narrowed opportunities to achieve “the good life.” Today’s college students have adapted to this narrative with endless striving on behalf of an uncertain future, accompanied by an escalation of mental health problems.
In today’s brave new world of pandemic-borne uncertainty, one in four college students has been treated for a mental health condition, and 91% of Gen Z’ers between 18 and 21 report one or more emotional or physiological stress-related symptoms in the past year. And their parents? As the 2021 trial of the Varsity Blues scandal reflects, some parents were desperate enough to use bribery to gain their child’s admission to “the good life.” More commonly, anxious parents fearfully question: “Will my child be OK?”
Today, “being OK” is often reduced to metrics: GPA, SAT, GRE, future earnings. College debt and the pressure to make good money often lead students to believe that if you flounder or fail even once—in high school or in college—your entire future is ruined. This distorted belief pushes students over the edge, or perilously close to it. Beyond academics, college success depends on belonging, now lived out in a social media culture of self-branded curation to look good.” In college, these pressures often combust in anxiety, depression, or in heightened risk-taking awash in substance use.
Parents are often perplexed and in a bind. Have they either done too much—hovering, helicoptering, and spoiling their kid—or too little? They ask: “Why is it harder now? Why do kids need so much more extra support at college than I ever did?” They protest: “We’ve been so involved; we’ve done so much for them.” They blame: “What’s wrong with kids today? Isn’t the problem overindulged kids who aren’t interested in growing up?”
Unsurprisingly, kids also blame themselves. Most have bought into the prevailing narrative of “strive harder, achieve more, be perfect.” Let’s stop the blame game, the whack-a-mole pathologizing of parents and youth. Instead, let’s strive for an understanding of how to ease the emotionally logical and anxious responses to what feels so out of control to both generations.
Let’s focus on helping our kids flourish amid today’s stressors and uncertainty. Protective processes include helping parents and youth detect distortions and let go of unrealistic expectations that there is a linear path to “the good life.” Life is not linear, nor is there only one path to the good life. We learn by making mistakes, recovering from them, and building resilience. Colleges are providing needed wellness and mental health support to maintain student resilience and are encouraging parents as partners to help reduce the stigma associated with mental illness. Parents can begin at home by calmly talking about emotional illness and what runs in the family. After all, one in two Americans will encounter a mental health problem over the course of a lifetime, and most first show up between the ages of 14 and 24.
Parents can encourage their children to embrace the fact that seeking help when needed is a sign of maturity and emotional strength. It may be useful to lend an example from your own life. Parents can be there, listening, not lecturing or judging their teens and young adults—who, after all, still need their parents’ and mentors’ helpful emotional support. The decade through college and the 20s can be the most exciting, important, and stressful time of life. Parents, educators, and mentors: Being there for young adults is the new normal.
Sources cited in this article can be found in Hibbs' book,The Stressed Years of Our Lives: Helping Your Kid Survive and Thrive During Their College Years.