Those whose parents have been overly protective, leaving them without much experience solving their own problems, tend to be especially vulnerable; they're more apt to be dependent and highly anxious, and less apt to be open to new ideas than their peers, according to personality testing of college freshmen by researchers at Keene State College in New Hampshire.
"Is that going to make a successful college student?" asks Keene State psychologist and study author Neil Montgomery. "No, not exactly. It's really a horrible story at the end of the day."
Charlene Chew-Ogi, the just-retired director of residential life at the University of California–Santa Barbara, has seen many of these parents, who have refused to "allow for any mistakes as the child grows up," come to campus for the first several weekends and even do their kids' laundry. When they can't physically be there to sort things out, they're all too available electronically.
"I remember a time when a student would be embarrassed to give Mom or Dad the weekend call," says Chew-Ogi. Now, rather than handle tough situations themselves, she says, students have no hesitation about calling or texting home for help "any time of the day or night."
A better way for parents to lend support at this point is to resist playing "fix-it" (except in a genuine emergency) and help brainstorm solutions instead, offers Brian Harke, dean of students at the University of Southern California. He suggests that parents ask their son or daughter what action might make sense and what college resources are available. The student then gets 24 hours to work on the problem before Mom and Dad check back to see how things are going.
"In my experience, the situation will usually work itself out, or [students realize] that they can deal with it on their own," says Harke. And parents "have empowered their student to embrace their independence."
Kids are more likely to manage the stress if they've learned coping strategies before they get to campus, says Michele Borba, author of The Big Book of Parenting Solutions. She recommends listening to an iPod loaded with relaxing music and getting exercise. A 2010 Boston University study suggested that three hours of yoga a week may help fight off anxiety and depression; the practice boosted levels of the amino acid GABA, the brain's main calming neurotransmitter.
A student who is depressed may need more parental input—and professional help. Borba suggests that parents concerned by a marked change in behavior that lasts longer than a couple of weeks consider directing their child to the campus counseling center. In this case, it might be a good idea to call the center directly, too, and ask for advice on how to proceed.
Students should take advantage of counseling services as soon as they start feeling overwhelmed rather than wait until the problem becomes immobilizing, Van Brunt says. "We fight against a stigma that counseling is only for those students who are weak or too crazy to make it on their own," he says, when the fact is that most students end up enjoying counseling and often feel better "after the very first session."
Statistically, he says, anywhere from 8 percent to 12 percent of students make use of the campus counseling center, half for serious problems such as depression or paralyzing anxiety, and half to talk about "normal adjustment conflicts like balancing a heavy academic workload, making new friends, and problems from home."