stressed image

'The Stressed Years of Their Lives'

Author: This is “the book I wish I’d had when my children were going to college."

The Stressed Years of Their Lives: Helping Your Kid Survive and Thrive During Their College Years was published by St. Martin's Press in April 2019. In their book, B. Janet Hibbs, Ph.D. ’84 and co-author Anthony Rostain, M.D. draw on personal and clinical experience to unpack the collegiate perfect storm: greater academic and social pressure at a point when identity is still forming and when (in the absence of family scaffolding) untreated alcohol abuse, mood disorders, and learning problems emerge or intensify. “True independence is a multiyear project,” they write. Here, Hibbs shares some of the book’s hard-won wisdom and pragmatic advice for how parents can build a sturdy springboard from childhood to adulthood. 

Elizabeth Mosier: You observe that parents are often so focused on their children’s cognitive development—in part, because that’s what colleges reward—that they neglect to encourage self-management.

B. Janet Hibbs: Social-emotional readiness  is an area of expertise of my co-author, Dr. Anthony Rostain. He often sees kids with ADD and some kind of executive functioning problem, who haven’t learned to manage their time or the structure of their days because their parents have always organized this for them. 

A parent’s first instinct is “How can I help you?” But they often make the mistake of over-functioning for their child, managing their time, and letting them off the hook for chores and other responsibility-building tasks. They might provide too many safety nets, rather than removing this scaffolding during high school so that their teens can become more self-reliant. This creates a situation for a student where the increased demands of college (“adulting lite,” one of my sons calls it) results in an overwhelming sense of “I don’t know how to do this.”

To put this “intensive parenting” in context, the past two decades have seen a cultural shift from parental encouragement of autonomy in childhood to parental control. Of course we have an enormous investment in our children, but finally, one has to accept as a parent that, as much as we hope and dream for our children, those are our hopes and dreams. Children are stressed, in part, because parents are transmitting an enormous amount of anxiety to them, from their own fears that their children won’t be OK. Today, parents see any departure from a linear trajectory as a problem to be fixed, rather than as part of learning. It’s better for children to learn from their mistakes rather than have a parent catch every fall, which makes kids afraid to fail.

Other consequences of the intense emphasis on achievement is a mindset barrier—the fear of “not making it.” Many universities focus on helping first-generation or lower-income students to believe that they can “make it.” But there’s also a mindset barrier for better resourced kids who feel they have to make all A’s or their lives are ruined. These kids can’t tolerate anything less than perfection. They’re not used to disappointing anyone, and they don’t feel free to say they’re not doing well. One sophomore in a private high school in Philadelphia told her parents, “I feel so much pressure, because you’re paying all this money.” The parents kept saying, “Don’t worry about your grades,” but she had internalized the message that she wouldn’t have a good life unless she went to the best colleges and did stellar work. That’s really a destructive, perfectionistic message. And one reason why gap years are a good thing, because of the maturational experience of living your life, versus living to achieve.

It’s better for children to learn from their mistakes rather than have a parent catch every fall, which makes kids afraid to fail.

It’s important to put the stressors for parent and child in context. We’re living in a civic culture of fear that precipitates anxiety, distortions, and stress for parent and child alike, within us and between us. We as parents, educators, and as a culture need to take a wider view to reduce this stress. The college-for-all movement started four decades ago, and since then, the federal government has pulled back funding for community colleges and for any of the nontraditional college tracks. Since then, there’s enormous pressure on the narrow, linear path of the traditional four-year college as the only way you can have a good life. It’s important to remember that there is no singular path, no “one size fits all” formula for a meaningful and successful life. Embracing that perspective can reduce the pressure on both generations.

EM: As a family therapist, you’ve seen that parents can be preoccupied with getting their kids into college—but surprised by the challenges that await these “emerging adults” when they arrive on campus. What should parents expect, but don’t yet know to expect?

BJH: Parents don’t expect that 75 percent of diagnosable mental illnesses crop up by age 24. They chalk up their kid’s problematic behavior to “just being a teenager” rather than looking at the heritable mental illness in their own families of origin. 

They may not know that between 40 and 50 percent of college-aged kids have anxiety disorders. The problem is partly familial, partly societal, and partly generational. These kids were born around the time of Columbine [High School mass shooting, in 1999]. The Twin Towers fell in 2001. The Great Recession happened in 2007–2009. They grew up in families with parents who were losing their jobs and houses. They absorbed the idea that the world is not safe and that, as hard as you try, things might go terribly wrong.

Are you ready to take responsibility for the consequences of your actions?

While parents know that kids are bombarded by social media pressures, they don’t know how these can intensify in college. Students become even more involved with image management as they try to make new friends. Beyond that, college presents a lot of free time, often used online. Maybe in the third wave of IT, tech companies will be more restrictive, more mindful about its addictive effects. But our Gen Z digital natives have absorbed these online pressures that have made them less resilient. They don’t know how to cope as well. Plus, virtual friends are a weak connection. There’s no substitute for face-to-face.

The good news is that parents can be a great help, especially when they’ve learned to manage their own reactivity. I practiced for a long time being a responsive parent versus a reactive one. When small accidents happened—a kid would knock over a glass of milk—I would say, “That’s a surprise!” and then we’d clean it up. However, nothing could have prepared me for the time my older son became so seriously depressed that he cut himself. When he showed me his injury, I made a conscious decision to remain calm. I needed to make him feel that I could contain his pain and distress. A lot of practice prepared me to respond helpfully, “Thank you for telling me. You’re not alone.”

My older son’s college experience was so frightening. But then my younger son, who I always thought would totally sail through life, had a series of medical traumas in his college years that affected him emotionally. And I thought, if this can happen to my Teflon son, this can happen to anyone’s kid. Their experiences, and what they taught me, inspired me to write this book.

EM: How can the college search process help prepare our children for the cognitive and emotional challenges ahead?

BJH: Asking your child, “Where do you want to go to college?” starts an ongoing conversation about what makes them happy and what dreams they have for the future.

The college tour is another opportunity to learn. It’s a chance for you to ask important questions your kid is too embarrassed to ask: Where is the mental health facility? Where is the learning center? Are these offices in buildings that make it obvious why you’re going there? College students, like most of us, don’t want to feel different or stigmatized.

Though tours are designed to sell you on the college’s facilities and amazing features like the rock-climbing wall, what you really want to look at is how the campus enhances the ability to make friends. If it’s an elevator building, ride the elevator and see if anybody talks to you. The dorm suite might be beautiful, but it’s just dumb luck if you like your suitemates, and often the common rooms are empty because everyone’s brought their own computer and Xbox. Old-fashioned dorms with a long hall and a shared bathroom make it more likely that you’ll run into a larger number of people, often enough to make friends. And of course you should ask about clubs and shared activities, which can be friendship incubators.

When you look at the ridiculously bad retention rates at some colleges, it’s clear they’re not doing a good enough job of helping students to succeed. Earlier, we discussed one mindset barrier to success: the fear of “not making it.” But another barrier is social: “I don’t feel like I belong.” This sense of belonging is something kids can detect. On some of our college tours, my sons said, “I don’t like the way the other kids here dress.” Parents need to take that kind of comment seriously, because your kid is picking up on things you might miss about whether or not they’ll fit in. And if they don’t fit in, it’s basically game over. They’ll drop out, or drop out emotionally. Because the main reason that kids persist in college, even when it’s difficult, is the social glue of their friendships.

EM: You list suggested dialogues parents should begin to have with their children in high school, to help them plan how to deal with the challenges to their coping skills college might present. You peg these dialogues to key components of social-emotional maturity. For example: Are you ready to take responsibility for the consequences of your actions? Are you ready to make friends, deal with roommates, and find suitable social activities? Are you ready to ask for help when things aren’t going well for you?

BJH: Though we’re talking about preparing for college, parents could start these conversations well before high school. The goal is to promote your child’s autonomous self, which means tolerating the fact that they’re going to make some bad decisions or decisions you don’t like. But letting them have enough latitude now, while they live at home, prepares them for the freedom and responsibility that college brings.