By David Magee | Contributor
In just a few short weeks, your child will pack their bags and leave for college. Whether it’s the first time they’re heading off or not, this is a tough moment for most parents. Not only will you miss your child fiercely, you also worry for their safety, and with good reason: Many college-aged students battle mental health disorders, substance misuse and addiction, self-esteem and body image issues, and more.
If things seem scarier—a lot scarier—than when you went to college, it’s not just your parental perspective. It’s a tough time to be a young person—which is why you need to stay close to your child once the semester starts.
Our young people really do face a perfect storm of factors that threaten their wellbeing and even their lives. And despite the many benefits of college, it’s also a hotbed for poor decisions, risky behaviors, and dangerous mistakes. Staying connected during this time gives them the support they desperately need.
I share this message because I want other families to avoid the tragedy my family has faced. In 2012, my son Hudson nearly died from a drug overdose at his fraternity house. Thankfully, he made a full recovery. But in 2013, I found the body of my firstborn son, William, after he died from an accidental drug overdose—a story I share in my award-winning book Dear William: A Father’s Memoir of Addiction, Recovery, Love, and Loss.
I have since dedicated my life to giving students the tools they need to thrive and find the joy they crave more than anything else. That’s why I founded the William Magee Institute for Student Wellbeing at the University of Mississippi,which seeks to understand how best to prevent or break the cycle of unhealthy habits and addictions that plague so many college students, and the William Magee Center for AOD and Wellness Education.
A few ways to keep your children close through “back-to-school” season and beyond:
Reach out often. Just because your child is far away doesn’t mean you can’t still connect regularly. You might schedule weekly phone calls or FaceTime chats to catch up. If your child doesn’t come home on the weekends, try to visit them a couple of times a semester. This is also a great time to assess how your child is doing mentally and emotionally, and to notice if they need extra support. The key is to make sure your child knows that you care and are available to them.
If your child isn’t the “phone call” type, a quick text or two every day can still help keep the lines of communication open. Don’t worry if you’re always the instigator! Even if they don’t show it, your child likely appreciates knowing they’re on your mind.
Keep having the “joy” talk. They may not realize it, but children, teens, and young people (and all of us!) crave sustainable joy more than anything else. But that joy is often missing for many reasons: substance misuse, overconsumption of social media, lack of meaningful connection and relationships, lack of faith, isolation, anxiety, depression, and other mental health disorders. These joy thieves prevent students from discovering what brings them true happiness.
Teach (and reinforce) the “tools” for thriving. Finding joy always begins with taking good care of ourselves. (This is the foundation that sets us all up for success.) Students should have a “toolbox” of habits, practices, and mindsets to help them maintain their mental health, avoid dangerous behavior like substance misuse, and create the wellness they crave. When you talk to your children during the school year, ask if they are using the “tools” that will help them feel their best and thrive. Some of them include:
· Plenty of sleep each night (not once in a while). Remind your child to keep their phone away from their bed to resist the urge to text and scroll.
· Daily exercise, fresh air, and sunlight. A daily walk or run sends invigorating blood to the brain and body, making us feel more alive and alert while improving our mood.
· Intentional social media use. There’s nothing wrong with using social media, but it’s not healthy to be online 24/7. Monitor stress and anxiety levels (pay attention to feelings of nervousness or inferiority) and know when to take a break or stop altogether.
Ask plenty of open-ended questions. Many teens and young adult children are less than forthcoming with their parents during their high school and college years. I recommend asking open-ended questions to get conversations flowing and find out how your child really feels. Instead of asking, “How is your week going?” you might say, “What were the best and worst parts of your week?” The responses from these kinds of questions cannot only inform, but also surprise and deeply delight you. Finally, open-ended questions are the gateway for your child’s self-discovery. Engaging this way helps them recognize their passions and the direction they would like their life to take.
Listen, listen, listen to your child (and validate their feelings). Communicating doesn’t mean you’re always the one doing the talking. It’s equally important to listen. When your child talks to you, listen deeply. Soak up every word and don’t interrupt. When your child has finished, repeat back to them what you heard and ask if you understand them correctly. Give them a chance to clarify. Finally, validate whatever they are feeling. Even if you disagree, your child needs you to see and hear them when they speak their truth. (This doesn’t mean you can’t share your feelings as well, but do give them a chance to say what’s on their mind and in their heart.)
Don’t miss verbal cues that something could be wrong… All humans, but especially teens and college-aged students, have trouble making blunt statements like, “I need help.” So parents often don’t notice when their children try to say this using different words. I urge parents to listen for verbalized clues that I call “change talk.” Often this change talk appears something like, “I don’t like my roommates; I want to move out and get a fresh start,” or, “The professors don’t like me here; I need to try a new school.” In other words, your child may place contextual blame on their problems, which is very common. They may be subtly crying out for help, however, and your conversations with them can help guide them to that recognition.
…And use the “Five Whys” to get to the root of the problem. If you hear your child using “change talk,” continue asking the question “why?” until you uncover the cause and effect of an underlying problem. For example:
“The professors don’t like me here; I need to try a new school.”
Why Question 1: Why don’t the professors like you? “They don’t like that I turn in my work late, but in high school, it didn’t matter.”
Why Question 2: Why do you turn in your work late? “Because I’m tired all the time so it’s taking me longer.”
Why Question 3: Why are you tired all the time? “Because I’m the rush chairman for my fraternity, and I have to take rushees out every night and get them drunk, and I have to drink too much, too.”
Why Question 4: Why do you have to drink too much with the rushees? “I don’t have to. I plan not to but always end up doing that.”
Why Question 5: Why do you end up doing that? “I don’t know. Maybe I have a problem.”
Get your child professional help right away if they need it. This rule applies to all levels of help, be it counseling for mental health problems, eating disorders, substance misuse or addiction, or something else. Therapy helps, and the sooner your child begins working with a professional, the better off they will be. The same goes for getting them treatment for serious addiction issues. Forget worrying about making your child “look bad” or ruining their reputation (or yours). Take action now—it could be a matter of life and death.
Your relationships with your children undoubtedly change once they leave your home. What doesn’t change is that they still need your guidance and support. Stay close, and you can feed this need even from afar. And you will rest easier knowing that they are safe, growing into strong young adults, and making good decisions that will serve them well.
David Magee is the best-selling author of Things Have Changed: What Every Parent (and Educator) Should Know About the Student Mental Health and Substance Misuse Crisis and Dear William: A Father’s Memoir of Addiction, Recovery, Love, and Loss—a Publisher’s Weekly bestseller, named a Best Book of the South, and featured on CBS Mornings—and other nonfiction books. A changemaker in student and family mental health and substance misuse, he’s a creator of the William Magee Institute for Student Wellbeing at the University of Mississippi and a frequent K–12 and university educational and motivational speaker, helping students and parents find and keep their joy. Learn more at www.daviddmagee.com.
About the Book:
Things Have Changed: What Every Parent (and Educator) Should Know About the Student Mental Health and Substance Misuse Crisis (Matt Holt, August 2023, ISBN: 978-1-6377439-6-6, $22.00) will be available at bookstores nationwide and from major online booksellers.