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Separation Anxiety in College Students

by Tom Seman MD FAAP September 15th, 2011 Pediatrician on Call
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My teen daughter just started college, and she is having trouble adjusting to being 1,300 miles away from home.  Before she left, she was independent and out going, now she cries every time I talk to her on the phone. I know young children suffer from separation anxiety, but do 18 year-olds go through this as well?

Going to college is a wonderful and scary experience all at once. The child, who has been somewhat independent while being protected by the family home, is now left on his/her own to deal with all of the stresses that occur during a day – whether this be conflict with the roomate(s), increased stress from the school work, negotiating the sometimes poor food choices in the cafeteria, and the like.

Crying is, of course, concerning to a parent, but it is a way for the child to let it out, after which he/she will usually feel a lot better (while the parent feels badly). These feelings usually come because of a sense of isolation, since the child is no longer in his/her comfort zone with her old friends. To help her out, encourage her to find people of a like mind. Encourage her to look for groups or clubs that interest her. Perhaps she could volunteer in the community, to help feel a sense of belonging and ownership of her new environment. Writing a journal is often helpful to think through her feelings as well. Furthermore, all colleges have a counseling center to help the students transition into their new life. If she is still having problems after a few weeks, encourage her to make an appointment with them to discuss some options to help her develop coping skills to help her grow and enjoy the college experience.

On a last and somber note: if the child was previously doing well at college and suddenly is having problems, please make sure that she is safe. Sometimes a dramatic change in behavior may signal that the child went through a horrific event that she is ashamed of or afraid to talk about. If this occurs, have her immediately go to the counseling center, local crisis center, or Emergency Room and have her get the help necessary as soon as possible.

Hope everyone has a safe and great fall.

Good Luck

DRTOM

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