Why Are Today’s College Students So Emotionally Fragile?

Vital insights from neuroscience

Posted Aug 26, 2015

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The college years have traditionally been a time for young people to be challenged by new ideas, learn to think critically, and assume greater responsibility for their lives, as they assume their roles as adult citizens. Unfortunately, the past few years have witnessed high levels of emotional dependency, anxiety, and depression among American college students (American College Health Association, 2008; Michael et al, 2006; Twenge,2000; Twenge, Zhang, & Im, 2004).

Recent books have identified one reason for these problems: psychological damage caused by overcontrolling parents. Middle-school teacher Jessica Lahey and Julie Lythcott-Haims, former dean of undergraduate advising at Stanford, describe the adverse effects of controlling parents. Psychology Today editor-at-large Hara Estroff Marano has written that such parenting “is likely the single largest factor contributing to the sharp rise in mental health problems among the young and the propensity of today’s kids to stay stuck in endless adolescence” (2008, p. 3).

Overcontrolling parents love their children and want to protect them from what they see as an increasingly dangerous world. So they frantically package them for success, protecting their children from failure while pressuring them to excel, doing their homework, making their decisions, and micromanaging their lives. Yet these parents may be depriving their children of essential brain development, sabotaging their ability to think for themselves and develop the very cognitive skills they need to succeed in life.

The college years coincide with a sensitive period of brain development (Casey, Jones, & Hare, 2008). From the late teens to the early twenties, our brains develop their adult connections. Active neural pathways are strengthened while those unused are pruned away. A high degree of personal control activates the prefrontal cortex, (Shapiro et al, 1995), while low personal control activates the subcortical limbic areas, leading to heightened anxiety and increases in cortisol levels (Mineka, Gunnar, & Champoux, 1986; Sapolsky, 1989). High cortisol levels impair the prefrontal cortex and hippocampus, compromising neuronal networks essential for motivation, focused attention, working memory, response regulation, behavioral flexibility, and goal-directed learning (Arnsten, 2009; Cerqueira et al., 2007; Numan, 1978).

Students raised by overcontrolling parents have difficulty dealing with the challenges of college life because they’ve been denied the opportunity to develop age-appropriate cognitive function. Insecure, confused, and emotionally fragile, they experience high anxiety and chronic stress, which further weakens their cognitive ability. As research in my lab has shown, they are deficient in optimism and hope—the ability to set goals, make plans, and follow through (Dreher, Feldman, & Numan, 2014). They experience greater distress and adjustment difficulties, putting overwhelming demands on college counseling centers. And their emotional immaturity is a major cause for concern--not only for their future health and well-being but for the future of this country.

How can we reverse this unhealthy trend? By allowing our children to learn, supporting their brain development with age-appropriate agency and autonomy. Marano (2008) offers strategic advice in her book, including:

  • Unstructured play
  • Family dinners at least five nights a week
  • Honest praise and honest criticism
  • Encouraging children to solve problems and deal with challenges
  • Giving them increasing responsibility.


American College Health Association. (2008). American College Health Association-National College Health Assessment Spring 2007 reference group data report (abridged). (ACHA-NCHA). Journal of American College Health, 56, 469-480.

Arnsten, A. F. T. (2009). Stress signaling pathways that impair prefrontal cortex structure and function. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 10, 410-422.

Casey, B. J., Jones, R.M. & Hare, T. A. (2008). The adolescent brain. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1124, 111-126.

Cerqueira, J. J., Mailliet, F., Almeida, O. F. X., Jay, T. M., & Sousa, N. (2007). The prefrontal cortex as a key target of the maladaptive response to stress. The Journal of Neuroscience, 27, 2781-2787.

Dreher, D.E., Feldman, D. B., & Numan, R. (2014). Controlling parents survey: Measuring the influence of parental control on personal development in college students. College Student Affairs Journal, 32, 97-111.

Lahey, J. (2015). The gift of failure: How the best parents learn to let go so their children can succeed. New York, NY: HarperCollins.

Lythcott-Haims, J. (2015). How to raise an adult: Break free of the overparenting trap and prepare your kid for success. New York, NY: Henry Holt & Company.

Numan, R. (1978). Cortical-limbic mechanisms and response control: A theoretical review. Physiological Psychology, 6, 445-470.

Marano, H. E. (2008). A nation of wimps. New York, NY: Broadway Books.

Michael, K. D., Huelsman, T. J., Gerard, C., Gilligan, T. M, & Gustafson, M. R. (2006). Depression among college students: Trends in prevalence and treatment seeking. Counseling and Clinical Psychology Journal, 3, 60-70.

Mineka, S., Gunnar, M., & Champoux, M. (1986). Control and early socioemotional development: Infant rhesus monkeys reared in controllable versus uncontrollable environments. Child Development, 57, 1241-1256.

Sapolsky, R. M. (1989). Hypercortisolism among socially subordinate wild baboons originates at the CNS level. Archives of General Psychiatry, 46, 1047-1051.

Shapiro, D. H., Wu, J., Buchsbaum, M., Hong, C., Elderkin-Thompson, V., & Hillard, D. (1995). Exploring the relationship between having control and losing control to functional neuroanatomy within the sleeping state. Psychologia, 38, 133-145.

Twenge, J. M. (2000). The age of anxiety? Birth cohort change in anxiety and neuroticism, 1952-1993. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 79, 1007-1021.

Twenge, J. M., Zhang, L., & Im, C. (2004). It’s beyond my control: A cross-temporal meta-analysis of increasing externality in locus of control, 1960-2002. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 8, 308-319.


Diane Dreher is a best-selling author, positive psychology coach, and professor at Santa Clara University. Her latest book is Your Personal Renaissance: 12 Steps to Finding Your Life’s True Calling.

Visit her web site at www.dianedreher.com