Kids and Anxiety: For students with anxiety, the transition to college is often more difficult
By KARA YORIO STAFF WRITER | The Record
It’ll be different in college.
For many parents of kids with anxiety, that’s the belief, the hope that buoys them as they drive away from the dorms on drop off day.
“Everyone’s white knuckling it thinking the next step will be better in college,” said Dr. Anne Marie Albano, director of the Columbia University Clinic for Anxiety and Related Disorders. “I’ve had parents say ‘Oh in college, the RAs are there, they’re going to get my kids dinner. They’re going to make sure my son or daughter makes friends.’ That is just not the way it works. …
“There’s this idea that it’s going to be different and, if it isn’t, the parents swoop in still. Sometimes it’s too late because the kids are embarrassed and they feel they’ve got to make this right. It has to go well for them. They don’t want to disappoint their parents, but they don’t know what to do and their anxiety just gets worse.”
The transition to college can be tough for most kids, but for those with anxiety, it can be even more difficult. As many as 1 in 4 children and adolescents are affected by an anxiety disorder and starting college presents another level of challenges — making new friends while fighting social anxiety, handling living in a dorm with obsessive compulsive disorder or simply functioning independently after parents handled many basic day-to-day tasks.
“We have so many kids with anxiety — teenagers and young adults — they don’t even get out of bed on their own in the morning,” said Albano. “If a parent is still waking their senior high school student up in the morning for school, how in the world is that kid going to get up on their own for college. [There are] different things that seem small but they’re actually big.”
Such as talking to a child’s teacher instead of having them do it. Going into the exam room during annual doctor’s visits. Overly assisting with homework or basic life skills such as cleaning up after themselves and packing a backpack for school. What’s the big deal, parents tell themselves.
“It is a big deal unless they are planning to move in with the kid in the dorm,” said Albano. “Eventually they have to pack their own stuff. If your end goal for your child after high school is that they go to college or join the workforce, they’ve got to be able to do it on their own. You can’t do this for them.”
Parents will say the kids “can’t do it.” In actuality, for many kids, parents doing it for them make them think they can’t manage on their own, according to Albano.
“When there’s anxiety that affects those things and their parents are still involved, this sets the young adult or the emerging adult up for not knowing how to manage and the anxiety gets worse,” she said. “It’s all kind of a vicious cycle. And we see kids heading off to college without having these kinds of skills.
“What happens – whether it’s social anxiety or general anxiety disorder or panic, whatever it might be – they feel different from the other kids in the dorm. They quickly isolate themselves and they don’t get in the mix of things and they don’t know how to advocate with professors and talk to the TAs. Before long, they’re depressed, they’re in their rooms, they’re not doing well and we wind up getting them in our young adult program because either they have to take a medical leave or they wind up failing out.”
Proper planning and communication in the first few weeks can be the difference between success and setback.
There are things families can do to make it easier, according to Dr. Victor Schwartz, psychiatrist and medical director of the JED Foundation, an organization that works to promote emotional health and prevent suicide among college students.
He recommends families talk about past times of transition and what helped then, familiarizing the student with the campus, learn about the counseling services offered and create a plan with the therapist at home if there is one. Also, parents should create a plan for communication in the early weeks — how often will they be in contact and how (text, calls, emails?).
“Really there needs to be a kind of checking in, especially if it’s a kid who’s had problems with anxiety,” said Schwartz. “The parent should be checking in with the kid regularly. There’s an expectable amount of homesickness and adjustment in the first week or two, but the trajectory of that should be toward things getting better.”
There needs to be a balance between properly checking in and constant contact and the frequency and need should drop off as the weeks go on.
“You hope to see over the first two to three weeks that the kid is settling and beginning to make some connections and friends, beginning to get a more comfortable feel for campus life,” said Schwartz. “If that’s not happening then that might be a cause for concern.”
Students should be encouraged to seek help. In general, colleges and universities have improved their mental health services and understand the need better than in years past.
“We really think that schools are doing a much better job in providing support services,” said Schwartz. “I think schools more and more have come to recognize it’s what they need and ought to be doing.”
Studies show anxiety can lead to depression and substance abuse, so any issues that seem beyond the expected homesickness shouldn’t be ignored. If coming home is the best option for a college student’s mental health, families should understand that’s an option.
“On the one hand if you panic and pull them out of school too soon it’s saying you have no faith in their ability to manage and to adapt to the situation,” said Schwartz. “That’s the balancing act. You want to convey a positive, ‘Yeah, let’s look at a way to get through this.’ But if you can’t, there are alternatives.
“If you’re not ready – and not everyone is ready for college at the same age — and this is one of the things you don’t know until you get there. But if you feel like this is not working for you and you’re so anxious you can’t sit in class and learn anything then there’s not much point to you being there.”
For those still in high school, there are things that can and should be done to start preparing now for the next step.
“We really have adolescence as the period where we prepare them for these things,” said Albano. “We have to prepare them by giving them responsibility and having them struggle with it.”
If necessary, there is professional and specific help available. At New York-Presbyterian and Columbia, there is a program for “launching emerging adults” and a College Readiness Program, which runs in the summers and during school breaks. The JED Foundation is soon launching Set To Go, a program for 11th and 12th graders to be emotionally ready for college when the time comes.