Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

When Your Adolescent Calls in Crisis from College

The last stage of adolescence, Trial Independence (18-23), is hardest of all.

Carl Pickhardt Ph. D.
Source: Carl Pickhardt Ph. D.

It often happens freshman year. Parents get a crisis call from their adolescent who is living away at college. Perhaps the young person feels disengaged and discontent, perhaps coursework is not being accomplished, perhaps new friends have been not been made.

And there can be more serious crises. Despondency or anxiety has become severe. Maybe substance use has gotten out of hand. Perhaps physical health is showing signs of failing.

“What happened?” they wonder. “She acted all ready to leave and live more on her own.”

Yes, and an “act” it often was. "I didn't want to worry them with my worries about moving out."

Most young people making this transition into more independent living have, at least a few times at the outset, when they feel truly unprepared and overwhelmed. The last stage of adolescence, what I call “Trial Independence” (ages 18–23) can be stressful in many ways. Consider some hard adjustments of this challenging time.

  • There can be acute missing home and family.
  • There can be social disconnection and feelings of loneliness.
  • There can be lowered self-esteem from not coping well.
  • There can be a lack of self-discipline to process educational work.
  • There can be painful uncertainty from fear of the future.
  • There can be procrastination and putting off to stressful effect.
  • There can be costs of over-demand and inadequate self-care.
  • There can be constant fatigue from chronic sleeplessness.
  • There can be online escape at the expense of offline engagement.
  • There can be serious romances that are heartbreaking.
  • There can be social distraction with partying peers.
  • There can be increased substance use that becomes problematic.
  • There can be concerns about living up to parental expectations.
  • There can be disappointing performance in a more competitive world.
  • There can be social withdrawal and isolation.
  • There can be overspending and rising credit card debt.
  • There can be roommate incompatibilities and not getting along.

There is a litany of challenges during Trial Independence with which most young people can be unprepared to cope.

So if the “crisis call” comes in, how should parents respond? Consider a five-step process that might prove helpful.

1. WELCOME the call. “We are so happy that you thought to call us; we love hearing from you, whatever you have to share.” Show that the loving family connection is unbroken.

2. EMPATHIZE with the upset: “Yes, it sounds like you are going through a really difficult time. Tell us more about it.” Provide emotional support.

3. OPERATIONALIZE the problem. “Can you tell us specifically what is happening and not happening that has contributed to your feeling this way?” Bring the problem into practical and objective focus.

4. STRATEGIZE about what to do. “What might be some constructive actions to take that would ease your current unhappiness, and would any outside help be useful at this time?” Explore problem-solving possibilities.

5. ENERGIZE with faith in finding ways for moving forward. Declare: “We believe you have what it takes to meet this challenge and will come out stronger on the other side. Please keep calling us, and we’ll keep checking in if you like, so we can be with you as you work this through. " Provide confidence and optimism.

If you have cause to believe that some outside on-campus assistance would be helpful, the discouraged young person talking about “quitting college,” for example,” suggest going to the College Counseling Center. Here, experienced staff who know chapter and verse about hard adjustments that can occur in this place at this age, can provide knowledgeable support. “Let's explore your options. Let's take time for ‘talking out’ before immediately electing to drop out, which after due consideration may or may not be what you decide to do.”

In response to psychological distress, maybe try the Counseling Center before the Health Center. Try an educational model for helping first, before going to Health Center and perhaps using the medical/ medication one right away. Of course, if the young person is experiencing acute emotional or physical distress, or is troubled by alarming or self-harming thinking, a medical intervention may be needed right away. A helping rule might be: try education before psycho-active medication, and always provide self-management counseling in connection with whatever medication is prescribed.

Parenting during Trial Independence requires a sensitive and delicate touch. Rush in to rescue, or otherwise take charge, and you can either inhibit the growth of important responsibility at a hard time, or you can risk causing the young person to pull away in defense of independence. “I’ll run my life my way, not yours!”

Parents have to give up their old managerial role of supervising and setting terms: “This is what you’re going to do!” They need to adopt a new mentoring role (offering advice only on request.) “We will share our suggestions if you would like. We know you are in charge of making your own decisions now.”

When that “desperate call” from their college student comes in, parents need to take this contact as a compliment. It not only signifies distress on the young person’s end, but it testifies to a sufficiently trusting relationship with parents to reach out for their listening and maybe advisory help.

In general, most of the “crises” occur freshman year as the young person is struggling to catch hold. This is why communication with parents of all electronic kinds tends to peak the first year and tend to decline during the years that follow as the last stage adolescent begins to more confidently make their way. If she or he becomes too busy to call as much during the later college years, that is probably a good sign.

Finally, when a college crisis call does come in, it may help to remember that quote from John F. Kennedy: “When written in Chinese, the word 'crisis' is composed of two characters – one represents danger, and the other represents opportunity.”

So, parents need to thread this needle: Take action if endangerment is communicated; but short of that, provide listening, empathy, and advice if asked, but do not intervene and interfere in this opportunity for the young person to grow.

Next week’s entry: Adolescence and the Gift of Parental Patience