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Common College Issues And What Parents Can Do To Help

When students discuss complaints and worries, they often hear, "This is the best time of your life" and, "It's a lot tougher in the real world." College life has numerous challenges, especially during the first year. First year students experience significant changes and stress. They must assume greater responsibility for all aspects of their life (e.g., academic, personal, social, financial, spiritual, etc.). Problems and struggles are almost inevitable, especially during "crunch" times like mid-terms and finals. A lot of incoming students and parents hope that college will be a new beginning. However, past issues and problems don't disappear when students move to campus. 

General Dos & Don'ts

There are no easy answers, but here are some general guidelines:

Do Don't
Listen Lecture
Ask questions Give unsolicited answers
Acknowledge and communicate feelings Avoid emotions
Express your opinion Make demands
Point out consequences of the behavior Threaten
Be supportive Take responsibility
Strive for mutual respect Demand submission
Let go a little Give up completely
Deal with problems calmly and openly Ignore or exaggerate problems
Allow mistakes for BOTH of you Expect perfection

Frequent Problems & How To Respond

Loss of a relationship


My freshman son just confided in me that his girlfriend, who is attending another college, recently broke up with him. They've been dating for over two years. He is not sure why she ended their relationship but expects she may have met someone else. He says that it doesn't bother him, but I'm worried. His roommate tells me that he's been withdrawn, sleeping late, and skipping his classes.

You Might Be Tempted To ...

  • Tell him that it was just "puppy love" and that he was too young to be tied down anyway.
  • Put down his ex-girlfriend and tell him that another will come along.
  • Offer advice and suggest other people that he should date.

But Try This Instead ...

  • Encourage him to talk about the break-up and express his feelings of anger, sadness, and loneliness (e.g., "What impact has all of this had on you?"). Listening attentively is much more likely to be helpful to him than any advice you can give.
  • Normalize his emotions (e.g., "I know you really cared about her and that you'll need some time to work through your feelings. That's ok. It's hard when we lose someone so close to us.")
  • Ask him what he thinks he can do to start to feel better.
  • Rejection is tough at any age, so remind him of his strengths and the reasons why others will want a relationship with him.
  • If he has trouble talking to you or remains distressed for more than a few weeks, encourage him to contact the Counseling Center.



My son has been at school for about a month now, and I'm worried about how he's adjusting. He's worried about doing well in his classes, and he says he hasn't found anyone to "hang-out" with and that he gets lonely on the weekends. He talks about how much he misses home, at times to the point of tears. I guess this situation doesn't completely surprise me; he was a loner in high school and has always struggled making friends. I was just hoping things would change once he got to college.

You Might Be Tempted To ...

  • Ignore the problem, hoping he'll "come out of his shell" with time.
  • Tell him that he'll have to suck it up and tough it out.
  • Immediately call the RA and suggest that he introduce your son to other students.

But Try This Instead ...

  • Remember that your son is not alone. Many students struggle to adjust to university living and to overcome homesickness (a trivializing term). In a sense, college students are leaving behind a way of life, never to fully return.
  • Make your caring and support for your son clear, but don't initially rush in to attempt to solve his social problems. It's better to encourage him to establish his own niche on campus. Suggest that he explore social opportunities on campus during which he might meet others with similar interests (e.g., sports, art, politics, etc.).
  • If his loneliness persists, suggest he schedule an appointment with a counselor to explore the reasons for his social struggles and to generate some strategies for making friends.

Personality Changes


Ever since my daughter left for college, she seems like a different person. She wears outfits that I would never have permitted in my home, and I know she's been going to parties where there was alcohol, and maybe drugs. I'm wondering if she's having sex with the new guy she's been dating, and I'm worried that she could get hurt: pregnancy, herpes, AIDS, not to mention the pain of rejection. I have to guess about what's going on with her, because getting her to talk to me is like pulling teeth, and she argues with everything I say.

You Might Be Tempted To...

  • Say something like, "Where did I go wrong?" or "Who are you and what have you done with my daughter?!"
  • Nag or threaten her until she settles down.
  • Avoid discussing issues like alcohol and sex, because it's awkward and may put ideas in her head.

But Try This Instead...

  • Remember that college is a time when students develop their independence and identity apart from their parents. At times, extreme and rebellious behavior occurs, but it's usually temporary and decreases as students grow into adulthood.
  • Work on keeping the lines of communication open (e.g., "I'm confused because you seem to be changing so quickly. It's hard to get to get to know you when we're always fighting. I really want to understand. Will you meet me halfway?").
  • Try to get to know her new friends, especially the guy she's dating.
  • Acknowledge the reality of peer pressure to drink alcohol and to be sexually active, particularly the pressure from young men she dates. Remind her that it is her body and that she has the right to say "no" to using alcohol and to unwanted advances no matter what the situation. Share your concern for her safety from pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases. If she has made the decision to drink or to be sexually active, suggest she contact The Well about these issues.

Poor Academic Performance

Scenario #1

My son just received his first college grades and he did not do well. In fact, if he doesn't improve his grades next semester, he may be put on probation. I'm really surprised by this; he was always an A and B student in high school. I'm also a little angry at him. College costs a lot of money, and he's not there just to party and have a good time.

You Might Be Tempted To...

  • Tell him that you are going to cut off all financial support if his grades don't improve immediately.
  • Constantly focus on his study habits and pressure him for information about how he's doing in each of his classes.

But Try This Instead...

  • Remind him (and yourself) that the freshman year involves a number of transitions and many students have academic difficulties during their first semester. Nothing in his prior experience has prepared him to cope with academic setbacks like low grades and falling behind on assignments.
  • Encourage him to utilize the academic support services available at JMU.
  • Consider that confusion about his major and future career might be hindering his academic efforts. Suggest that he set up an appointment with Career & Academic Planning to explore his interests, abilities, and values, but do not pressure him to pick a major. The process of selecting a major takes time, often involving some trial and error, and may not culminate in a definite choice of major until sometime during the sophomore or junior year.
  • If he doesn't follow through on your suggestions for academic and vocational assistance and/or his grades remain poor during the second semester, encourage an appointment with a counselor to explore the possibility that a personal adjustment problem may be interfering with his academic success. If you want additional guidance, call the Counseling Center yourself to consult with a counselor regarding the situation.

Scenario #2

My daughter has become more and more depressed as the semester has progressed. She says that she can't figure out why she's feeling this way, but every time I talk to her about it, she starts crying. She mentioned to me that she is sleeping all the time, has lost her appetite, finds it hard to concentrate on her work, and just feels like everything is hopeless. I'm even a little worried that she might be suicidal.

You Might Be Tempted To...

  • Minimize her problem by pointing out all the good things in her life and telling her that she doesn't have a reason to be so depressed.
  • Insist that she come home immediately; maybe even consider withdrawing her from school.

But Try This Instead...

  • Encourage her to talk about her feelings (e.g., "What impact is the depression having on your life at college?"). Simply listening to her will help probably help more than any advice you have to offer.
  • National studies indicate that nearly 10% of college students have seriously contemplated suicide. Fortunately, fewer students attempt suicide (about 2%) and even fewer succeed. If you believe your daughter might be considering suicide, express your concern and ask her directly if she is thinking about harming herself. This will not put the idea in her head, but it will give her the opportunity to communicate about this important area.
  • If she doesn't feel better after a week or so (or if you feel the problem is too big to manage on your own), encourage her to speak with a counselor. If you need additional guidance, call the Counseling Center yourself to consult with a counselor regarding the situation.

Eating Disorders


My daughter has become overly preoccupied with her appearance. While she looks fine to me, she frequently talks about feeling overweight and therefore unacceptable. I've become really concerned about her obsession with counting calories and her apparent belief that her physical appearance determines her self-worth and social acceptance. She has mentioned that some of her roommates control their weight by vomiting after meals and using laxatives, and I'm afraid she may follow their lead.

You May Be Tempted To...

  • Get angry at her for her superficiality and tell her that "beauty is only skin deep."
  • Encourage her to work out more often at the University Recreation Center.
  • Focus on and monitor how much she's eating and threaten consequences if she doesn't eat more.

But Try This Instead...

  • Let her know you think she is fine just the way she is and that she has many important, positive qualities that are not measured by numbers on a scale.
  • Try to see her issues with her weight for what they probably are: a reflection of her concerns about her self-worth and her acceptance from others. Encourage her to talk about these emotions (e.g., "What feelings about yourself have led you to become so focused on your weight and appearance?").
  • In a non-judgmental manner, inform her that the extreme weight control practices used by her friends can be physically dangerous and lead to serious eating disorders like bulimia and anorexia.
  • If the situation does not improve, encourage her to speak with a CC clinician.