Help for lonely college students during the summer.
Posted June 26, 2018
When we talk about college students suffering from loneliness we typically talk about the loneliness that seems pervasive during the academic year. What we are less apt to acknowledge is the profound loneliness that students are vulnerable to during the summer and other extended breaks.
Parents might want to think that issues like loneliness, depression, and anxiety resolve themselves once finals are over and adult children move back home for the summer, to the comfort of their own beds and some homemade meals. But perhaps, these issues and problems deepen in ways that need to be better understood.
In fact, as a college professor, I find that students who disclose trouble to me during the school year in my office and via e-mails tend to also reach out to me in the summer to convey their distress and to ask for help.
Parents naturally want to believe that the problems are external, possibly related to academic stress, pressures with being a college athlete or being over-committed with activities at school, dealing with difficult roommates or facing a breakup. It becomes much harder to face that the locus of the problem might be internal to the adult child and/or related to difficulties at home.
Recently, a student emailed me about how living back at home is difficult because of her parents’ tense marriage and her parents’ drinking. She confided in me that she could not bear to tell her mother about her feelings. I gave her a lot of feedback and ideas for finding a therapist and also recommended someone locally for when she returns to school. Interestingly, she decided to commit to this now and started making the trek, two hours in each direction for a therapist I know well and recommend highly. Her desperation was palpable and real yet so too was her commitment to herself to make changes. This student is likely to do better because she knew who to reach out to and how; she sought me out as a mentor early on in college and reconnected when she felt overwhelmed.
There are numerous reasons why students may return for the summer with newfound stresses and sadness. Simply put, “we can’t go home again.” Upon leaving for college, family dynamics often shift, the players have changed, the game itself changes. Students return to something partially familiar and partially foreign.
And, some students are taking college classes online (sometimes far too many in fact) which can further exacerbate alienation both from peers and professors. And some may be involved in boring and tedious jobs. These are not ingredients for a meaningful, fulfilling, and rejuvenating summer.
Related to this is the emerging reliance on social media that has made us simultaneously more connected and more disconnected. We may be in touch with many more people than ever before and may have hundreds or even thousands of “friends,” but far fewer with whom we share a deep, meaningful, reliable, and durable emotional connection. Social psychologist Sherry Turkle writes that we are “alone, together” and that not only are we paying a price for this in terms of our intimate relationships, but this frenetic tethering also compromises our capacity to cultivate solitude, and the joy and creativity it can bring us.
Sleeping with their phones, pulling their phones out when they don’t want to appear alone, texting peers and romantic interests because it’s “easier,” and their increasing discomfort and anxiety with face-to-face conversations all reveal students’ loneliness. Most of my students have not learned the important difference between loneliness and solitude; as a result, too many are perfecting loneliness and not sharpening the tools to appreciate solitude.
What can students do and what might parents encourage and support?
1. Consider professional help with a therapist, and also look into therapy and support groups for returning to campus.
2. Reflect on what worked and what didn’t during the past academic year. How can you create an intention now for next school year? For example, do you need to think about ways to be more involved on campus? Or, do you need to consider pulling back on commitments if you have spread yourself too thin? What are you most wanting to say yes to, and what might you say no to?
3. Keep in mind that the summer after freshman year can be the trickiest and potentially the loneliest; you might be eager to see friends from home and then be disillusioned when you discover those friendships have changed since high school. Furthermore, you might start missing college friends you made and then see on social media what those friends are up to, sizing up your lives against idealized pictures and updates. Some friends and acquaintances may post pictures of savoring pasta and gelato with their families in Italy while others are snorkeling in the Caribbean, all while you’re home bored out of your mind from your bad waitressing job and your parents who would be better off divorced. Or, you may start to realize you are not really into your friends at home and do not have the friendships you hoped for back at college either. This sense of crisis can be an opportunity for some self-reflection. Have you been holing up too much?
4. If you are dating, consider if the relationship is really fulfilling or making you lonelier. Is a long distance relationship the best thing right now and/or when back on campus?
5. Take time to look into the array of extracurricular activities that might be meaningful and rewarding both in your community at home this summer and on campus beginning in the fall.
6. Consider getting involved in activities without being accompanied by people you know so you can be more apt to meet new people you would not have met otherwise. This can stretch you.
7. Consider any opportunities to assume leadership roles to experience a sense of real contribution. You have the chance to shape your campus when you return, and to shape the community you are in!
8. If you struggled last semester or anticipate future struggles, check out campus resources now so you will have them in place when you return to campus. There are many resources to support your intellectual and emotional well-being in addition to counseling—for example, tutors at the academic success center, writing center, etc. For students who are queer and questioning, many campuses have LGBTQ support services and LGBTQ centers. For students who identify as African-American, Latina/Latino, Asian, etc., many campuses have student centers with cultural specificity that can serve as points of connection and support. Students who have experienced trauma from sexual assault may benefit from campuses with victim/survivor support services.
9. Make it a point in this upcoming school year to seek out mentors; these can be professors who seem interesting, coaches who seem challenging and supportive, etc. An implicit and explicit mission of the college experience is to assist and support students as they individuate from their families of origin. Students generally do better in school both academically and socially, as well as experience greater success when they graduate and launch into the world, when they have identified and nurtured relationships with faculty and staff who become mentors to them. These are connections that have the potential to lead to job opportunities and other sources of enrichment.
10. Students may not want to admit to loneliness and parents might not pick up on just how lonely and distressed an adult child is. Criticizing their friends and schedules or insisting they accompany you to every family gathering won’t build trust. Demonstrate that you are open to talk and to strategize and do so by suspending judgment and opening a curious heart. Show that you are equally open to supporting your child as he or she seeks professional help.
11. Some students have debilitating depression and anxiety for which medication may help to take the edge off of. This may be particularly helpful for those who are engaging in self-injurious behaviors like eating disorders, cutting, and burning.
12. As students juggle all that is required of them, they benefit from cultivating habits of good self-care, including getting adequate rest, maintaining good nutrition, engaging in vigorous exercise, and taking part in activities that reduce stress like mindful meditation and yoga. Deep reflection helps with cultivating stillness, resilience, presence, and peace of mind, which all enhance the joys of solitude.
13. Find your passion; follow your bliss. All of us enjoy where we are much more when we have a sense of purpose, shape, and meaning in our days. If you are doubting your choice of school, consider this—have you truly given the school—and yourself—a fair chance and explored new things? Consider looking into cool stuff now so you are ready for a more robust return to college—find hiking trails, parks and other green spaces, the beach if there is one, an art museum, or seek out local concerts and performances, or even a day trip that can give you a better sense of the area you will start to call home. Buy tickets for a concert for when you return in the fall. Build in things to look forward to.
14. Commit to turning off your phone at least an hour every day. The immediate gratification you get from a cell phone distorts your ability to find important answers from within. Experience the world outside your phone.
15. Journal. Write your feelings down. Make lists of what you are grateful for and what you envision and hope for going forward.
16. Loneliness is a normal, human experience and we often have to build our emotional muscle toward greater resilience in this area, both counting on ourselves and our strength and connecting with others in real time.