Have you ever felt anxiety during a big vacation or dread at news of a new job or promotion?  Maybe a little (or a big) panic before a happy event like your graduation or wedding?  If so, that’s actually pretty normal!  Big life events generally involve transition and transitions are characterized by a disruption of routine and homeostasis—the predictable, familiar habits and circumstances that anchor us and help us feel calm and rooted. Big events bring big change, which is why even happy events can trigger an anxiety response—especially if you are already prone to anxious emotions.

One of the biggest transitions in young adulthood is leaving home to go to college. This transition, as traditionally navigated in the U.S., involves an instantaneous and wholesale change of virtually every aspect of a young person’s life and is, as a result, fraught with emotional obstacles. In fact, longstanding statistics indicate that about a quarter of all college students respond to these stressors by dropping out during their freshman year and up to 40 percent of all college students drop out over the course of their college experience and fail to earn a degree (based on six-year tracking). For young people with a history of anxiety, this wholesale transition can seem particularly overwhelming and can trigger staggering fear for both the would-be freshman and their parents!

So, we asked Mountain Valley therapist Sharon McCallie-Steller a question common among parents of college-aged young people: “How do you deal with anxiety when your child goes to college—both your child’s and your own?”

MV: Sharon, talk a little about what it’s like for young people who are getting ready for college. College should be a great thing, an exciting adventure. Why is it so scary and overwhelming for some?

Sharon: Anxiety is always focused on the anticipation, the uncertainty, about what might happen—fear around all the “what-ifs?” Since college represents a whole new life experience for a student—leaving home, leaving a familiar school situation, leaving friends, changing your whole environment and support network—there is a lot to process. It should be exciting, of course, but high levels of excitement often feel a lot like anxiety! So, for a student who is prone to anxiety, this very exciting time of anticipation can trigger an anxiety response.

MV: How can parents be helpful to their child during this time?

Sharon: Sometimes a parent’s well-intentioned and understandable impulse is to try to fix their child’s anxiety. They often make two mistakes. The first is to minimize their child’s emotional experience. Again, this is always well-intentioned, and it takes the form of trying to calm the child with statements like, “it will be fine,” “you’ll do great,” “just relax,” “everything’s going to be fine,” et cetera. This communicates to the child that they should not feel anxious, which can actually increase the anxiety and create separation between the parent and the young person. The reality is that it makes sense to be anxious in the face of so much change—it’s normal!

So a better place to start is to validate your child’s anxiety by simply acknowledging it: “Wow, yes, this is a big change. It sounds like you are really feeling anxious.” This immediately connects you with your child’s experience and creates room for helpful conversation. “Okay, mom gets it.” It makes you a safer ally. At this point, you might be in a better position to ease into the work that I call “planning to cope.” You can work with your child to dig a little deeper into the specific worries to  visualize real situations and discuss possible solutions: what if you struggle to find your classes, where can you can go for help and guidance, what do you want to make sure you’re involved in and how do you access that. But, again,  the first step for parents is to validate the childs experience.

MV: So the main points I’m hearing are: 1) validate the feelings—they are normal and acceptable, 2) visualize the specific points of anxiety, 3) discuss a practical plan for coping with those points.

Sharon: That’s right.

MV: So that covers how to help you deal with your child’s anxiety when they go to or go back to college. But what about your own anxiety as a parent?

Sharon: Yes, well parental anxiety around this time of year is often very high as well. I won’t see my child every day, I won’t be able to monitor their safety and wellbeing. Home like will change. I won’t have the same access to their friends. There are very real threats living on your own away from home and the familiar. You know as a parent that this transition is not all sunshine and rainbows. So just know that it’s normal and appropriate to have some anxiety. But as a parent you can reflect on what is, maybe, an outsized fear: what am I catastrophizing, what is my own anxiety and fear that I might be projecting onto my child, what is my own stuff that might be getting in the way of me being excited.

If significant fear comes up for you during this transition, it’s a great opportunity to do your own work, to seek support and growth. This can take the form of joining a parent group—which many colleges provide, or processing with your spouse, or joining a PTA group for parents of seniors. If the fear begins to interfere with your relationship with your child or ability to enjoy this adventure, you might consider therapy or parent coaching.

As part of your own work, this can be a great opportunity to reflect on what you know about your child’s capabilities and to anchor yourself in that. “She’s spent so much time preparing. She got into college based on her abilities. She has these attributes and abilities.” And like you’ve now done with your child, you can create your own practical coping plan for addressing concerns that cause anxiety.

MV: So, the plan for dealing with anxiety when your child goes back to college is much the same for the parent as for the child?

Sharon: That’s right. Validate and normalize the feelings, right-size the threats—gauging anxiety against reality, make a coping plan, and use this as an opportunity to work on yourself and build a support network.

MV: So if, after doing all this preliminary work, your child’s anxiety remains very high, how do you know if it might be smart to pause and get some help before?

Sharon: The question to ask is if the anxiety is interfering with daily functioning. Is my child making it to work, engaging socially, doing the things necessary to prepare for college like packing and planning? Or are they avoiding, staying in their room, not getting basic tasks done. If the latter, they might not be ready and you might consider speaking with your child, and a professional, to assess whether to hit pause and get some help addressing the anxiety itself. One thing to consider is whether deferring is, itself, an avoidance strategy or just a wise decision to prioritize growth and increase the odds of success. Conversation with a parent coach, educational consultant, or therapist can help you assess this question. Many parents and students choose to defer for these reasons and most colleges are set up to accommodate such a decision.