Parents' Weekends at College Are a Chance to Help


NEW YORK (MainStreet) — Parent and Family Weekends at college might seem like a good time just to have a reunion, but counselors and college officials who work with students, particularly freshmen, know it can be more beneficial than an opportunity to catch up and see your kid’s dorm.

When one father went to see his son during parents’ weekend, he learned that more had been happening than his son had relayed in emails.

“He had no idea his son's roommate got hit by a car and died until he went to the weekend,” says Natalie Caine, owner of Empty Nest Support Services, a Los Angeles based consulting firm that works with empty nesters. Caine says the son really finally opened up about the loss and sobbed over the death for the first time.

Parents’ weekends give parents and their loved ones an opportunity to see what might be really going on since the child left home two months ago.

Mark O’Brien, a licensed clinical professional counselor who works with Columbus College in Chicago and has a private practice, says the top five things to be on the lookout for during college weekends are signs of depression and anxiety, substance abuse, suicidal thoughts, relationship problems and eating or other self-injury disorders.

O’Brien says he coaches parents on a system called BASEline, in which parents assess how their students are doing Behaviorally, Academically, Socially and Emotionally.

O’Brien says in his workshops he addresses these issues and coaches parents on seeing the warning signs in each area, which may include:

Behaviorally: Looking for an unsteady gait in you child’s walking, slurring words, signs of stress such as nervousness or anxious behavior – after, of course, being sure to pay attention to notifications from the college.

”Nothing is like being face to face,” says Caine of behavior issues. “You know who your child is and who he isn’t.” Caine says you might look for signs that are out of character for your child. For example, if your child was neat and well-organized at home and there’s towels and clothes all over the dorm room floor, that would be a sign there could be something amiss, such as  a high level of stress.

Academically: Dawn Dillon, director of advisory and learning services for William Peace University in Raleigh, N.C., says academics are typically the biggest thing students find overwhelming, particularly in their first year of college. She says a variety of factors can be at play, including freedom from parents’ watchful eyes, taking too many courses or just having not developed good study habits.

O’Brien says if your student is talking about being overwhelmed or school being “hard” or if you’ve received some letters from the college, these are all signs there could be major problems looming.

Socially: “There’s pressure to fit in and find new friends,” Dillon says. “Everything has changed for them, and it is sometimes difficult.”

O’Bren says to be on the lookout for any extreme or inappropriate behavior. Interacting and inviting their friends and roommates out for pizza is an excellent way to see how they’re interacting with people, O’Brien says. “Are they spending time online or seeing kids in person? Are they interacting with people and teachers in the hall and are people stopping by the dorm?” O’Brien asks.

Emotionally: This is a very important one, says O’Brien, prioritizing sadness, anxiety, anger or mood swings over the weekend as warning signs. Also,  changes in weight and physical grooming are signs something could be very wrong emotionally.

How to help
One other problem some students fall into: finance issues, either by getting into credit card debt or by not being able to budget properly to pay living expenses. “Sometimes they can get into trouble spending money they don’t need to,” Dillon says. “They don’t have an idea of what is a need and what is a want.”

Dillon says it’s important to have financial discussions with your student, making sure they are doing all right and paying their bills. Also, if they are expecting a refund check from loans mid-semester, make sure the student understands that is not “free” money.

“Make sure they know it’s OK to tell you if they’re having financial problems and ask them how you can help them budget better,” Dillon says.

Caine says it is best to take that approach with any problem. “Always ask them ‘What can I do for you?’” – but in the role of helper, while leaving the student to problem-solve, Caine says.

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