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How Parents and Loved Ones Can Help

It can be challenging to find the right balance between supporting your student and providing them with the right amount of space to build problem-solving skills.  However, if you have noticed signs of distress and are concerned for your student, it is important that they know you are there to support them, even from far away.  Here are some ways that you can help if you suspect your student is struggling:

Talking & Listening

The simplest way of helping can be by providing an ear and being mentally present with your student.  You can start the conversation by naming what you have noticed and expressing care and concern (e.g. “I’ve noticed that you have a hard time making friends and that your grades have gone down a lot.  I’m really worried about you and that you’re not doing okay”).  Listen to their concerns without judgment, interrupting, or advice-giving (unless it is requested), and ask questions to both help you understand their experience and convey that you care.  Provide encouragement and reassurance that you’ll be there for them.  You can also share similar experiences, which normalizes the student’s experience and feelings, while also being mindful not to take the spotlight.  Avoid telling them how they should feel, placing blame, or focusing on “fixing” the problem—oftentimes just having someone to talk to can reduce distress and increase feelings of being supported.  Before moving on to potential solutions, make sure to give them plenty of time to “just talk.”

Ask About Their Needs

Our best efforts to help someone can fall apart if the other person does not need the help or if they need support in a different way than what we are providing.  The best way to know how to support your student is by asking them “What do you need?” or “What can I do to help?”  If they do not know the answer, you can help them explore what their most pressing concerns are and make suggestions of what could be helpful.  In most situations, making sure the student has options will increase their commitment to take action, feelings of autonomy, and reduce distress.  As difficult as it can be for parents or family, sometimes a student needs space to process the situation for themselves or to figure out what they need.  If your student declines help or asks for space and the situation does not call for immediate action, consider giving your student some time and space to think and take action on their own.

Encourage Them to Seek Help

It is important for a student to know what resources are available on campus and who they can turn to for support.  Encourage your student to identify the appropriate resource and to reach out. You can follow up on your conversation after the initial “nudge” or after they have made the connection with the resource.  You can also help your student identify others in their support system (e.g. staff, professors, mentors, friends, significant other, etc.) that can provide additional support—after all, many students are not comfortable talking to their parents about certain topics. Plus, it can provide some relief to you knowing that others are caring for your student while they are away.

If your student’s well-being allows them to do so, give them the space to reach out for themselves first.  This will help them develop valuable life skills, such as problem-solving, critical thinking, and knowing when and how to ask for help.  If your student is not able to reach out for help on their own due to the severity of their struggles, then you might consider providing them support by locating information of local and campus resources, driving them to an appointment, going to an appointment with them if they so request, or providing moral support in other ways from afar.

Trust Your Instincts

As a parent or family member, you know when something is off or when your student is struggling.  Don’t hesitate to reach out or get help if your instincts tell you something is not right.  If you suspect that your student needs immediate assistance, or their situation is unsafe or life-threatening, call 911 or the UNC Police Department at (970) 351-2245.

Seek Additional Support

Some students may be hesitant to reach out for help for various reasons.  If you have encouraged your student to reach out and they have not done so, you can reach out for additional support on campus.  The Office of Student Outreach and Support can follow up with your student if they are not open to reaching out for services.  You can also contact the Counseling Center at (970) 351-2496 for guidance on how to help guide the student toward getting assistance and support. If you know that your student is receiving services at our center, you are welcome to share your concerns with us.  However, due to confidentiality laws, we are unable to confirm treatment or share information about a client’s treatment without a signed release of information.

Remember to also seek support for yourself.  Adjusting to your student being away at college, seeing them struggle, and helping them with their transition and difficulties can also take a toll on you.  Caring for yourself will allow you to have more internal resources available to help your student through their struggles as well as your own.