struggling in college

Five Signs Your Child May Be Struggling In College

November 3, 2021

College is a time of growth, independence, and opportunity for your child. It can also be an incredibly stressful time for you, especially if you are far away from your child’s college campus.

    As a parent, you may be worrying about everything from whether your child is getting enough sleep, to whether they can get good grades in college level courses.  Sometimes students seem to be doing well, based on what they tell their parents, but could be having challenges that their parents are not aware of.

    How will you know if your child is not thriving in college?  Let’s explore the five most common signs that your child may be struggling in college – so you can support them!

parenting
Courtesy of Hassan Ouajbir, Unsplash

GRADES DROP

    One of the most obvious signs that your child is not doing well is when their grades go down. Unlike high school, you won’t be contacted by your child’s professor if your child is having trouble in a class.

    In addition, parents don’t have access to their child’s grades in college unless the child has signed a waiver permitting such access, because of the FERPA rules. Consequently, you can only see your child’s grades if they have signed the FERPA waiver or if your child tells you their grades directly.

    Once you actually find out what your child’s grades are, you will know if their grades have dropped, and can have a conversation with them to determine what’s happening.   

    A drop in GPA may simply be the result of taking a hard course or participating in a lot of social activities. The drop may not indicate a serious problem. On the other hand, if you see a large or steady decline in grades, your child probably needs some help. It’s important to determine the real cause so the appropriate support can be put in place.

    Perhaps your child hasn’t been balancing their academic and social life well. If so, some time management training and goal setting would be helpful. Or, they might have a gap in their study skills and need help learning how to take notes and study for exams at the college level.  Your child may have enrolled in advance courses and needs a tutor on a regular basis. Their academic advisor can provide some guidance about whether the courses are appropriate based on your child’s background.

    Another possible explanation, for a drop in grades, could be that your child is overwhelmed by their course load and unable to stay on top of all of their assignments. If so, they could benefit from some tutoring or improvement in their time management and stress management skills.   

    In sum, if your child is struggling with their grades, the first thing you should do as a parent is determine the root cause of the problem. Then you can move forward to help them get back on track academically, and ensure that they’re able to graduate successfully.

SOCIAL ISOLATION

    Is your child asking to come home on weekends, or spending most of their free time alone in their dorm room?  If so, that’s a sign they are trying to isolate themselves from their peers on campus. What does social isolation mean?  It could simply be homesickness, it could mean they’re having problems with their roommate, or it’s possible they haven’t yet figured out how to fit in to the social scene.

struggling in college
Courtesy of Dingzeyu Li, Unsplash

    A big part of the college experience is developing relationships with peers and having fun on the campus. If your child is opting out of being on campus, there clearly is a problem that needs to be addressed.

    It may be that your child is introverted and hasn’t yet felt comfortable doing social things that are out of their comfort zone. The simplest way to handle this issue is to encourage your child to join some activity on campus where they will have a chance to meet people and make some friends. Even having one friend, one person they can talk to, will make a huge difference.

    If your child is unable to force themselves to join an activity or a group with similar interests, they should talk to the residential assistant (RA) in their dorm.

    The RA’s role is specifically to help students adjust to college, and they are trained to help them become comfortable socially. The RA can give your child advice on what has worked for others who have had the same struggle.  Social isolation can lead to mental health issues, so it’s important that it be addressed quickly.

     In some cases, it may be necessary to limit the amount of times your child comes home, beyond scheduled college breaks, in order to support them in acclimating to campus life.

ALWAYS TIRED

    Another sign your child may be struggling in college is when you hear constant complaints of being tired.

   Feeling tired could simply mean they have been partying too much or staying up late to hangout or study. They may naturally feel tired because they never get more than 5 or 6 hours of sleep.

    However, constantly being tired could also indicate an underlying health problem – sleep apnea, anxiety, or depression can cause fatigue, which results in complaints of being tired.

    If your child is constantly tired, it’s important to find out what might be going on.  Is there a big project due in a few weeks that they’re stressed about? Are they studying late every night?  Is their roommate keeping them up?  Have they been drinking too much caffeine?

    In any case, if your child has been exhausted for an extended period of time, the first thing you should do is talk with them about your observations. You’ll probably want your child to schedule a check-up to make sure there isn’t a physical reason for feeling so tired.

    If there are no underlying physical problems, then addressing their habits, their sleep routine, and their use of time will help them get the amount of sleep needed (8 to 9 hours) to function well as a college student.  And even though 8 to 9 hours of sleep every night may be unrealistic for many students, putting habits in place, to at least increase those hours, will improve their energy and focus. 

    Lack of sleep is a significant problem for many students, but changing some daily habits can often solve the problem in a short amount of time when the student is motivated to do so.

WEIGHT GAIN OR LOSS

     College students are under a lot of stress, which often affects their eating behavior. Small changes in weight are not cause for concern.  However, significant amounts of weight gain, or loss, can be a sign that your child is struggling in college.

    They may have a health issue such as: an eating disorder, depression, chronic fatigue or substance abuse issues.  On the other hand, your child may simply:  dislike the food in the dining hall; be too busy to eat regularly; miss meals by mistake; eat late at night while studying; or eat frequently and rarely exercise.

    The first step is to uncover the reason for your child’s weight gain or loss without making them feel ashamed of their body.  If you want to rule out a health issue, an appointment with a doctor would be wise.

     One suggestion for talking with your child, who has lost weight, is to ask about the eating options available at school, and find out whether they’re enjoying the food.  Based on their responses, you can determine how they might improve their eating habits.  Options to consider are: signing up for a meal plan if they’re not on one; getting food delivered; or creating a schedule around meal times so they don’t forget to eat.

    Weight gain can sometimes be a sign that your child is struggling with depression. College students who are far from home, and don’t know who to talk to about their feelings, may soothe themselves by eating more food, or drinking more alcohol, than they normally would.  If you suspect this might be happening, encourage your child to speak with a therapist.

     If you’re still unsure why your child is gaining weight or losing weight, consider whether they are drinking too much caffeine or not getting enough sleep.  Both of these habits can affect appetite and energy levels, which may cause your child to eat more or less than normal, without even realizing it.

     Like the other signs of possible struggle, the most important thing is not to ignore the issue, and take some action to solve the problem, if there really is a problem.

NOT COMMUNICATING

    How often do you communicate with your child in college, either by phone, Zoom, or text?  If your child is reluctant to communicate with you, that can be a sign that they’re having some problems. 

    Perhaps they don’t answer when you call, or they return text messages with one-word responses like ‘fine.’  If it’s difficult to have a real conversation, then you would want to look further into what may be happening.

    Of course, if your child isn’t communicating often, it could simply mean they’re busy, which is a good thing. A general rule of thumb for college parents is, “no news is good news”. 

    However, it’s also true that some students don’t want to tell their parents about their struggles because they feel embarrassed, fear disappointing them, or want to solve the problem on their own.  You can’t know what’s really going on unless you ask directly. 

    One way to avoid the issue of non-communication is to establish a plan, from the start of college, where you and your child agree to a once a week family face-to-face call.  Having a plan in place will give you peace of mind and a regular opportunity to see your child and be better able to make sure they’re okay.

    If you didn’t set up a family call time before your child left for college, it’s not too late.  You are the parent, and your child will comply if you make it clear that it’s a non-negotiable plan.  Yes, you want to give your child some space and room to grow, but you also need to know they are safe and thriving.

USE YOUR INTUITION

parenting
Courtesy of Tim Gouw, Unsplash

   The five signs discussed here are common signs that your child may actually be struggling in college.  Anytime you sense that your child is not acting like themselves, it’s a good idea to investigate.  It’s difficult to know what’s really happening when your child is no longer living under your roof.   

    It’s important to strike a balance between allowing your child independence and autonomy, and providing the love and support they still need from you.  If your child opens up to you about their struggles, let them know you love them no matter what, and that you will always be in their corner.

    Most of all, don’t miss the signs that your child may be struggling.  The sooner you reach out and determine if there is a problem, the better off your child will be.  Always use your parental intuition.

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Dale Troy, Author

Dale founded Crush College Stress after realizing how many students arrive at college unprepared for life on their own, without their parents. Dale helps students successfully transition to college, and helps current college students implement habits to improve their experience. Her three daughters are Yale College graduates, and Dale graduated from both Yale College and Yale Law School. Dale can be reached through her website: www.crushcollegestress.com.

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