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5 Things to Say When Your College Student is Struggling with Hard Things


Recently, we traveled through several states to move my freshman college student into an apartment with five other girls she had yet to meet. Within the first week of school, two of her roommates tested positive for COVID, two were sent home to quarantine, her apartment had a leak in their roof, the AC broke, and the only remaining roommate left was in a car accident.

Amidst all the chaos and confusion and fear and stress, she was struggling to keep up with her rigorous class schedule and manage her new home and new life that looked nothing like she imagined it to be. (She was vaccinated, so she could attend her classes wearing a mask.) By the end of the week, after feeling exhausted and congested with her lungs burning and her chest tightening, she too, tested positive for COVID and is currently isolating in a hotel room. 

Needless to say, many things have gone wrong. 

Each time my daughter would call me in tears, overwhelmed with angst and confusion and dread, I knew she needed me to be strong and supportive, affirming and encouraging. She needed her mama to understand her feelings and offer her guidance and give her perspective, and above all, instill the hope in believing she is capable of managing these hard things.

Each time we ended the phone call, she thanked me for believing in her and for helping her through whatever crisis she was facing at that moment. I could hear the relief in her voice when she said goodbye. Although she was still stressed, she was able to move forward, knowing that although this is all so scary and hard, she would somehow make it through and come out of each stressful situation with more confidence, strength, wisdom, and experience.

I believe that’s what our kids need most when they are going through something stressful and they are so far away from home. They need us to be their anchor in the storm and help them find their own direction and courage, assurance and certainty when things are so chaotic and scary, traumatic and uncertain.

So, if your college student calls, stressed out and struggling with whatever difficult situation they are facing, they might need the same things from you.

Here are five steps you can take to help them through hard things. 

Listen and affirm their feelings.

When your college student calls with upsetting news, let them talk about everything without you interrupting. Allow them to share the details of their struggles and express all their emotions about what they are going through. Don’t cut them off with questions, or tell them how to feel, or immediately say that things will be fine. Instead, listen to them talk until they are done telling their story and sharing their feelings. Then validate how they feel and tell them how sorry you are that they are going through this really terrible situation. They need a safe place to share their raw vulnerable side, and they called you first and foremost because they trust that they can confide in you and you will comfort them. The very first thing they need is your listening ear and your affirming response.

Guide them through the next steps.

Once they get out all they need to share, offer help in formulating a plan to manage the situation. Ask them what they think should be the next step to take. If they don’t know because they are too upset to think straight, suggest the next step, and see if they agree. Then talk through the following steps to take and map out the best route to go- one mindful and intentional step at a time. This will help them not feel so overwhelmed, but rather give them the ability to focus on the next right thing to do. It’s so important they feel in control, so don’t dive in to save them, don’t tell them what to do, only suggest ideas and let them decide how to best take care of themselves and handle the situation. Remember, you are teaching them how to live on their own. This is how they will learn. 

Help put things in perspective.

Once you have a solid game plan on the next steps to take through this difficult circumstance, it’s time for a pep talk. This is where you will put things in a positive perspective, reminding your college student of all the good things that remain in their life, despite this hard thing. Identify the blessings amidst this terrible situation, because there are always some to find and celebrate. Expand their outlook to see many wonderful and exciting opportunities and experiences that await them, and this hard thing will not interfere with those big plans. This is a temporary setback, and although it’s so hard and scary and throwing them off course, they have the rest of the year to recover and restore all that was lost. Acknowledge their long-term pursuits and dreams and identify all the positive areas in their life that still remain strong and secure, so they too, remember their life is full of hope and great things too. 

Encourage and assure them they are capable and strong.

Once your college student has a step-by-step plan and a more positive perspective, tell them you are absolutely certain they are able to manage this hard thing and anything else they face. Remind them how strong and capable they are and how they have unlimited potential in all they can do. Tell them you believe in them and you are completely confident they will survive this challenging time. Assure them that all their gifts and traits and strengths are evident in who they are and will only grow more and more as they keep taking courageous steps through this hard thing. 

Tell them how much you love them and how proud you are of them.

If there’s anything our kids need now more than ever, it’s for us to tell them we love them and we are so proud of them. This bears repeating too. Pour it out every time you talk to them, every time you text them because these are life-giving words. When our kids are in a crisis on their own, they need our love and support to buoy them up and strengthen their conviction that they can and will survive. When hard things happen, our kids will question their choices and their worth, they might want to give up or come home, they might fall apart and not have the courage to go on. They need us to hold their confidence when they can’t, they need us to define their worth when they can’t, they need us to be their strength before they can find it in themselves.  And there is nothing more empowering than receiving our consistent and unconditional love and praise.

When our kids’ lives erupt into a storm, I’ve learned that our job is to be their lighthouse. Amidst their voyage out in the raging sea, they need to see our light flickering, full of hope and certainty, confidence and love. They will depend on it to nourish their own wavering security and strength as they grow through this experience. They will believe in themselves the more we believe in them and slowly but surely, they will learn they are capable of doing hard things. 

And no matter how sad, upset, stressed, and scared YOU are, which is inevitable, you must hold it together when you interact with your kids. They certainly don’t need the added burden of your emotional weight to take on too. You can crumble and unravel and cry and seek your own support without them knowing. They need you to be strong for them, to believe in them, and for you to stay steady and certain, secure and strong. That is your job.

But most of all, you need to believe all the things you’re telling your child because although you are walking them through this stressful situation to help them manage it all, doing these five things will help you manage it all too.

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