By Jon Reeves
As a psychologist who works in university mental health, I have come to learn something extraordinary. Many college students have suffered the exact same traumatic experience. The nature of the trauma, you ask? A skinned knee. Maybe even two! Parents respond in many ways, but three types of reactions come to mind.
The first type is the parent who FREAKS OUT. They see blood on their child’s body and rush them inside, bandage them up, and forbid them to play for the rest of the day—“too dangerous.” The second type tells their child to TOUGHEN UP! “It’s only a skinned knee, it doesn’t really hurt,” they tell their emerging Rambo. The third type shows empathy for their child’s pain, takes care of the wound, and encourages them to keep playing. The third way, unsurprisingly, is the most effective for raising a capable, healthy child.
College takes a lot of mental work. There are many things to learn, many relationships to navigate, and doing your own laundry is hard. Under stress, people fix problems in comfortable, familiar ways. This is why emergency personnel practice so much—under stress, people revert to whatever happens to be second nature. For many college students, that means calling those who raised them.
Those phone calls are important teaching moments for your emerging adult.
As a psychologist, it is easy to bemoan helicopter parents who always come to the rescue (i.e. freak-out parents), while also feeling repulsed by other parents’ complete neglect of their child’s pain (i.e. Rambo-Mom). This is binary or “all or nothing” thinking.
All or nothing thinking is not effective. Instead, validate your student’s pain (e.g., “sounds like you’re really stressed,” “you must be exhausted!”) and help them get through it (e.g., “what could help you unwind?” “do you think you need to get more sleep for a couple of nights?”). Help your student see the third way between freaking out and just ignoring their distress.
For example, boy likes girl, but she does not reciprocate. He can either (1) ignore her and his feelings, or (2) confess his affection and risk rejection. Are these his only options? No! There are many middle-ground paths. For instance, little Johnny Love could tell this girl that he would like to take her out, but that he knows everyone is busy in college and he knows dating may not be her top priority. Thus, he opens a possibility while not opening himself up for complete rejection. This would be a mature approach for a college student, but it is definitely possible for a student in late adolescence with some help of a parent. Who knows—she may find such a mature approach attractive!
Another example: your student is struggling in class. A binary thinker may either: (1) drop the class, or (2) keep going and hope not to fail. Again, there are other options. After letting them know that you understand how hard and stressful this must be, help them solve the problem, or at least make it better. Maybe they could talk to their TA or professor, maybe they could attend study groups, or perhaps they could ask for an extension on a big paper. Like most things—the most effective option lies somewhere in between two extremes.
There was a time when your child needed help to tie their shoes, but not for you to totally do it for them. That is how learning happens. In college, they are no longer learning to tie their shoes. Rather, they are learning how to navigate relationships, negotiate academic and work responsibilities, and to clarify their values. They will get frustrated, and hurt, and skin their metaphorical knees. Respond accordingly.