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Avoid asking “Are you sure you can’t finish?”

How parents need to let go of their own academic expectations when their young adults say, “college isn’t for me.”

This is a good time to read between the lines; not listening to the words your young adult is saying, but rather the hidden message.  Sure, they don’t think college is for them because it’s not.  As a parent, you’re hearing one thing but they’re desperately shouting another.  You’re associating them dropping out with never being successful in life.  You’re equating their withdrawal to your own failure as a parent.  This is so far from the truth!  What you’re young adult is actually sharing is that they are struggling.  To them, college is not a safe environment to get better.  They aren’t thriving. Families need to let go of the expectation that they will graduate college “on time.”  Regardless if you are a parent of a college Freshmen or college Senior, the message is still the same.

I’m not saying they’ll never get a degree.  That’s one issue parents struggle with.  There is a drive to be “on track” to getting your undergraduate degree, but know that college isn’t going anywhere!  If they need to get a job and work for awhile before figuring out what they want to study, let them.  If they want to travel (on their own dime) to grow up through cultural immersive experiences, let them.  If they need to take medications or see a therapist to get themselves stable and less depressed, you definitely need to let them!

The stigma of mental health has little to do with young adults in college.  In fact, Millenials and GenZ are seen as the “Mental Health Generations.”  They’re in tune with what they need and they seek out support.  The struggle lies in being vulnerable with a parent (or sets of parents) who are GenX or Baby Boomers.  They were raised during the era where being successful only came with a college degree.  These are parents with multiple Bachelors, Masters, and Doctorate degrees.  They are of the mindset that the only way into adulthood, similar to their own path, is a full college experience. That’s not the case in 2019.

These generations were also taught to “lock it up” when it came to mental health.  Hide your weaknesses, because being anything less than perfect and happy was unacceptable.  Think about your 19 or 23 year-old who is aware they’re wasting your money and is struggling significantly with mental health issues.  They finally muster the courage to confront you in asking for support, and might feel relief initially for being assertive in asking for help.  Imagine being that young adult who immediately hears from their parent “are you sure you can’t just finish the semester?” How do you think they feel?

As a parent, you have to let go of your expectations.  What every parent wants is for their young adult to be happy, healthy, and live independently.  They won’t get that if you’re forcing your academic agenda on them.  They want you to be proud of them.  They also know you won’t be proud when they walk away with a 0.0 GPA and need more intensive mental health treatment because they didn’t advocate for themselves earlier.  What parent wouldn’t be proud of their young adult who knows what they need and gets after it?

If you are a parent of a young adult who just returned home from the spring semester with little to no grades to show for it, or if you have a young adult already saying they can’t return next Fall, I encourage you to stop and listen to them.  Hear what they have to say and ask what they need.  Have a conversation, create a plan for getting help and brainstorm what they will do instead of returning to college.  Remember, leaving college now doesn’t mean they’ll never return.  It just means their mental health is more important than getting a diploma. 

It’s so much easier said than done to discuss expectations.  For something that is ingrained and so important to you as a parent, it’s definitely hard to let go of.  The best way to think about it may be this:

“If I push for completing college now instead of getting mental health treatment, will they still be around to actually get their degree?”

It’s morbid, and true. Help your young adult out.  Support them in getting help. Know you aren’t alone.  Connect with a professional who can help your young adult!  Not someone who works for a college or university, but someone who truly understands behavioral healthcare and the importance of getting your young adult connected to the best supports immediately.

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