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College Success

Helping your college student succeed

Young adults are at a tender age. It’s when childhood expectations meet reality.

Donna Moss tells us about helping your college student when he or she really needs it.

With the excitement of high school graduation, we often forget that major developmental milestones lie ahead. Young adults often come home from college with all kinds of complex problems from relationships to sexuality to avoiding studies to addiction. When a twenty-something regresses, childlike behavior like avoidance, a lack of discipline or blaming isn’t far away. Remember, they may be adults, but they are not too many years away from childhood.

College Hazards:

What are some of the common problems of today’s college students?

  • Avoiding schoolwork to party or just play video games.
  • Losing control of their sleep wake cycle now that a parent is no longer supervising.
  • Dramatic “love” affairs, punctuated by neediness and hurt.
  • Blaming everyone but themselves for messing up.
  • A wish to stay home and not get out of bed (or one’s room).
  • Drug, alcohol, or other addictions.
  • Depression and a wish to retreat.

My College Hazard:

When I went to college I had several challenges. One was that I chose a very large school; or it chose me. In those days there wasn’t much thought put into where you would go or if it was a good fit. You just went. The large size was difficult at first, coming from a small, nurturing high school.

Later, however, it turned out to be a plus, as I always got to meet new and interesting people. The other obstacle was that I took so many credits on a semester abroad that I was able to graduate early. Graduating early was a disaster for me socially. It took a long time to recover from being set free before I was emotionally ready.

College Students in Psychotherapy:

In my therapy office, college age students tend to have one of three common problems that often intertwine. Once you know what you're dealing with, its not hard to remedy the situation.

  • Lack of Structure: A number my clients went away to college or university, only to return completely overwhelmed. For one thing, there was so much consumption of alcohol during freshman year, and so many trips to the ER that many realize they can't handle such an environment. For some, a better alternative (for now) is Community College and living at home where they feel safe and secure. There’s nothing wrong with this. The majority of these students are surviving and thriving in a more sheltered place.

Parents provide structure and support while teens are at home. The radical loss of structure can put an otherwise healthy college student into free fall. We all need sleep, exercise and a good diet. Plus, study time must be built into the schedule. Being smart is not enough.

  • Emotional Immaturity: The second type might be suffering from depression and/or “failure to launch." After having perhaps many years of unrealistic expectations from their parents, kids get to college and find that life isn’t so easy. Just because they were the captain of the cheerleaders doesn’t guarantee sororities, boyfriends or grades the way it did in high school.

The pressure to succeed is enormous. And, our changing economy doesn’t help.

One boy even said that his college was so competitive people got depressed simply by having to declare a major. The pressure can be intense, as parents say, “I’m paying $60K for this thing, what are you going to do with it???”

Sadly, there’s little room anymore for just “finding yourself.” With liberal arts offering less of a platform for a good job, young people are stymied on what to take and how to make the best of it. In my experience, many are ill prepared for what’s to be expected of them.

  • Identity: Lastly, there are the students who get to college and feel lost and confused, unsure of their new freedom. Immaturity and lack of structure may be a problem, but at its core, this group doesn't yet have a solid identity. Knowing who you are and what you want, often takes years to develop.They may turn to drugs/sex/pills/alcohol to avoid having to take responsibility. And since it’s so readily available on campuses across America, why not? It seems like one giant party. It’s hard NOT to get caught up in it. Talk about peer pressure.

Some young people make one mistake and it follows them throughout. Some are at risk for serious addiction problems, probably that run in their families. Teen brains are vulnerable to these risks. It is very scary indeed.

Helping Your College Student Launch:

So what to do? Stay in good communication with your twenty-something. Just because they are away, doesn’t mean they aint comin’ back. Before you know it there’s a long winter or summer break to deal with. Pay attention to any changes in hygiene/social/and academic performance. Remind them always that help is available. Also most if not all college campuses have FREE or low-cost counseling centers.

Several years ago SUNY-Stony Brook was in the news about this because of a rash of suicides. Parents may not be able to learn of the content of their child’s sessions due to their age and confidentiality, but that doesn’t mean they can’t reach out and try to communicate.

For more on the particular issues of college age children, see:

Practical resources for college age:


To find out more about Donna Moss, LCSW-R see:


For more on The Intelligent Divorce and Other Relationship Advice see:



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