THE BLOG

Why Kids Lose It at College

Mar 13, 2011 | Updated May 25, 2011

The parade of depressed, anxious and depleted students who walk through my office is endless. They feel tricked, cheated, stupid, unattractive, socially inept, and almost all of them ask this question. "What is wrong with me? These were supposed to be the best years of my life."
To this I almost always answer with no small amount of incredulity, "Who told you that?" Of course I know the answer to that question. Everyone, everywhere.

o All kids hear about in high school is college. "Get into the best school you can!" "Chess club will look great on your application! " "You'll never get into a good school with those grades!" And of course, that hyperbolic promise, "You'll have the time of your life!" Does anyone ever say, "College is important but it's a lot like real life. It's got its ups and downs."

o It's expensive. It's so expensive in fact that it better be fabulous. Kids go off to school feeling a weighty responsibility to make the most of it. Love it! Squeeze joy and success out of every academic and social moment. People forget you can't buy a good time. You can buy an opportunity for a good time. But, that's all.

o There is a tendency to think, "Once I'm away from home, everything will be great." Kids don't realize the insecurities born of a critical parents, or the anger felt over being misunderstood or unfairly compared to a sibling, goes to college with them along with the new jeans and backpack.

o Today's kids are coddled more than ever. They get to college and aren't used to taking care of all their problem themselves. Add to this those students with special education needs who after receiving lots of individual attention in high school discover they are not in Kansas anymore.

o Minority kids either by dint of color, race or sexual orientation, coming from small towns expect or hope that college will afford them the chance to really be a part of an integrated community. They are often disappointed.

o Daily campus life is not all lollipops and ivy. There's little privacy. It can be a rumor mill. Sleeping can be tough. Eating alone in dining halls can be excruciating. Classes can seem so difficult a student might feel as if she's wandered into a PhD program. College can feel like a battlefield where you have to fight to be seen, an x-ray machine where you feel all your flaws are on display, a game show in which you have to guess your way through many academic and social hotspots, and a reality show in which all the contestants can vote you off at any moment

o Finally, there are those kids who love college. Have the best time! Talk the talk. Walk the walk. They stand as constant reminders that this is the way it could be if only "I wasn't crazy."

When a disillusioned student sits in my office I explain that college does offer the possibility of growth and positive change, but to think that anyone can simply erase old challenges and problems and begin anew with a blank slate is just magical thinking. I add that college is an entirely new experience with unique responsibilities and there isn't a way in the world that one should expect an easy transition. Then I try to lay out a more realistic framework. It sounds like this...

o It's true you can reinvent your image in college. But you can't change everything about yourself. You can lose your "geek " label for example, but if you're a little shy that trait isn't going to disappear the minute you hit campus. You can however present yourself in a new more open way without a bunch of kids you've known forever staring at you as if you've grown two heads.

o Dorms can be a lot of fun, but sometimes you may wish you could be all alone. A visit to the library might help. So might a long walk away from the quad. It's normal to want quiet time.

o You might find a lot of classes fun and interesting, but others might be totally overwhelming. If they are ask for help. You belong in college. You can do the work. Professors like students who care.

o Some days you might feel confident and friendly. Other's pretty down and out. Try talking to a friend or if it persists speak to someone in the counseling office. That's what they are there for.

o Sometimes it's easy to find a boyfriend, sometimes it takes time. It would seem like all that freedom would lead to romance. But sometimes it leads to social confusion. There are so many kids it's hard to get to know anyone.

The most important thing to communicate is that if a student is unhappy at college, it doesn't mean something is wrong with him or her. Hopefully it will pass. If it doesn't asking for help is critical. College is a part of life. It's not apart from life. It may not be the best experience your child has ever had. That's okay. Getting the diploma may involve a touch and go semester, a year off, living at home and picking up some courses at a local community college, or on and off visits for several years to the counseling office. However it goes graduation is an impressive milestone. And the struggling? It's a common part of the package.