Managing Emotions in College: How Parents Can Help Students

The first years after high school are a huge transition that can trigger anxiety and more. Learn how to help young adults with managing emotions in college.

Sending a child off to college can bring a whole range of emotions for moms and dads: sadness, uncertainty and – of course – excitement. But what about the emotions your young adult is feeling?

Chances are those feelings are pretty intense. And unfortunately, there’s no intro-level course on managing emotions in college, despite it being a pretty big deal.

Anxiety tops the list of issues, say two mental health experts involved with the Public Voices Fellowship in a piece they wrote for The Washington Post – along with depression. Exhaustion, loneliness and sadness are among the problematic feelings and, for some, stress can even wind up hurting academics.

Metro Parent talked to David Schwartz, Ph.D., a psychologist and director of the Oakland University counseling center in Rochester, Michigan, about the emotions students are experiencing – and advice for how to help young adults with managing emotions in college.

Understanding the college transition

Schwartz says attending college for the first time is a transition in life in general. All of the sudden, your teenager is a young adult. Whether he or she is living on his or her own or a college commuter, there are a lot of changes and responsibilities to handle.

“There is no hand holding or oversight,” says Schwartz. “Which is healthy.”

Out of nowhere, your child has to now make dentist appointments on his own and figure out how to do her laundry, for example.

“They have to take responsibility for taking care of themselves,” Schwartz says.

There are changes in their academic and social lives, too. Classes are more fast-paced compared to high school – and the difficulty level is typically much higher. Most students also say goodbye to their familiar social circle and find new ones, which can be tough.

Because campus is filled with so many new people all at once, Schwartz adds, it can quickly become overwhelming for students.

“This will be their first time, since being really young, in making new friends,” Schwartz says. And, gathered together, these factors can be a trigger for mental health struggles.

“Anxiety is the most common presenting problem we see, followed closely by depression,” Schwartz says. “It’s a trend across the country.”

Solutions for managing emotions in college

While there’s definitely a benefit to your young adult learning autonomy, there are tools that can help him or her thrive along the way. Here’s what Schwartz recommends.

Know your resources

It’s important for your kid to know what and where the resources are. Topping that list is his or her college’s counseling center, tutoring center, disability services and writing center.

Schwartz says to make sure that your student knows how to seek out those resources solo.

Ask for help

There is a stigma around asking for help in college, he adds, and that’s why many students don’t wind up getting the help they need.

“Don’t be afraid to ask for help,” says Schwartz. “It takes a lot of courage to ask for help.”

Humans are all social creatures, Schwartz adds, and we’re all going to need help at different times in our lives. Speaking up now, during these formative young adult years, can set a good blueprint for handling this down the road.


Schwartz stresses the importance of healthy relaxation and mindfulness activities, such as body scans or breathing techniques.

There are also apps out there that kids can download to help them handle their anxiety and stress better, including Headspace.

Manage your time

Time management is probably one of the most important skills a college student can have in his or her mental tool belt. Students need to create a healthy balance between work and school – personal time, too.

Schwartz adds that students should make sure they’re eating and sleeping well.

“Sometimes, they feel like their plate is too full. But you can’t get a bigger plate, so you either have to take some things off or rearrange some things,” Schwartz says.

Learn from failure

It’s very easy for students to put themselves down after receiving their first bad grades or going through a bad semester. But that’s normal, Schwartz says.

“It’s not uncommon to have a first semester with lower grades than usual,” says Schwartz. “It takes a semester or two to adjust to the new pace and routines.”

Schwartz adds that failure is necessary for success and you need it to grow and find happiness in life. In other words, students can either take a bad grade as a challenge or a burden.

“Turn this into a positive and (don’t) go down an anxiety spiral,” says Schwartz.

Schwartz says he has some students who imagine the worst – like living homeless in a ditch – after receiving a bad grade. He points out that you need to turn it into a learning experience, instead.

When it comes to managing emotions in college, that’s key. He advises parents to encourage students to ask themselves: “How can I improve on this? What steps can I take for next time?”

Get involved in your student’s life

Sometimes, parents need to step back and let their young adults learn about life themselves. Other times, though, you really need to step in – and the sooner the better – before a problem turns into a crisis.

“Trust your gut. You know your kids best,” Schwartz says. “People who are struggling are experts at hiding it, so be persistent about having them open up to you.”

At the same time, Schwartz adds, it is important to respect their autonomy as young adults.

“Let them know that they are not alone and that this is a common experience,” he says. “Helping them recognize that – then they are more likely to talk and get help about it.”

And if you are still struggling with getting your child to open up, don’t be afraid to call the professionals at their school. Because they can most likely help you on how to talk to and approach your child.

“We like it when the parents call,” says Schwartz.

This post was originally published in 2018 and is updated regularly. 


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