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How to Handle Crisis Calls From Your College Kid

Experts on what parents do wrong and what they should try instead

You can’t predict the day. You can’t predict the hour. But you can predict one thing: If your kid is away at college, there’s a mighty good chance that an urgent phone call, email or text from him or her is somewhere in the offing.

Every parent in America who has a child away at college knows the stomach-churning feeling that comes with the urgent calls, in particular. It’s an instant reminder of what parenting is really all about, as you suddenly find yourself desperate to help your distraught child who is hundreds — or maybe even thousands — of miles away.

Why College Kids Make Crisis Calls to Parents

Sometimes the calls are about academic fears and disappointments. Other times, they’re about romance gone awry. And many times, they are simply about the loneliness that goes hand-in-hand with college kids being away from home. How to best handle them?

For the answer, Next Avenue reached out to three child psychology experts. Perhaps the single most important piece of advice they offered: prepare for these calls before they happen.

“The hard work starts out before the call,” says Janine Domingues, a child psychologist at Child Mind Institute, a nonprofit dedicated to transforming the lives of children struggling with mental health and learning disorders. “Before your child goes off to school, as much as possible, you must convey confidence in their ability to get through moments that feel difficult.”

Legwork for You and Your Child

But some of that confidence will only come through legwork.

Your child and you should both know where the academic center is on campus and how to reach someone there about possible tutoring questions, says Domingues.

Similarly, she says, it’s important that you both know where the student health and student counseling centers are — and how to reach out to them, too.

If you and your son or daughter do this prep work, you’ll probably get fewer crisis calls, Domingues says.

Welcome the Call

Most importantly, whenever crisis calls do come, “you need to welcome that call,” says Carl Pickhardt, a psychologist and author of the new book Who Stole My Child: Parenting Through Four Stages of Adolescence.

It’s critical to empathize with your child, he says, and you must be willing to say things like, “Gosh, it sounds like you’re going through a really hard time.”

Equally critical: Never act dismissive about your college kid’s problems, says Sapna Doshi, a licensed clinical therapist and director of Mind Body Health, a clinic in Arlington Va., which specializes in the treatment of anxieties.

“Focus on being validating and nonjudgmental,” she says, adding that you need to let your son or daughter know it’s normal to feel anxious or scared about what’s going on at college.

Coaching, Not Solving

In almost all cases, when you get that crisis phone call, the best response is to coach your kid to solve his or her own problem — not for you to solve it, says Domingues. Problem-solving is a critical skill that young adults need to develop on their own, particularly for handling their personal problems, she says.

Before your kid turns 18 or so, says Pickhardt, you mostly set terms and supervise him or her.  But after that, you need to move from a managerial to a mentoring role, he says. “Instead of telling your kid what to do, you should be offering advice,” he says. Many parents, however, have trouble adapting to this new role.

It’s really about learning to “strategize,” says Pickhardt. Let your student figure out which actions he or she has to choose from and which seems best, he says.

The Mistake Well-Meaning Parents Make

A word of caution: Well-meaning parents can inadvertently end up escalating their child’s anxiety by discussing the matter too long, says Domingues. Parents need to stay calm and stable during these phone calls, but they sometimes get overanxious and either ask far too many questions or try to step in and take over. “You have to be calm, concerned and caring,” says Pickhardt.

Kids 18 and up have enough worries of their own without their parents’ fears being loaded onto their pile of concerns, says Pickhardt. Your child will likely translate your worries into a vote of no confidence at the very moment he or she desperately needs your vote of confidence, he says.

In most cases, it’s best to keep the discussions short and laser-focused on coaching children into resolutions that they figure out for themselves, says Domingues. Then, it’s probably best to end the call with encouragement by saying something like “You know how to do this,” she says.

What the Call Means

The most difficult adjustment — and the most common reason for urgent calls home — is that sense of loneliness so many students experience at college for the first time. When they phone home, more often than not, they are simply seeking a sense of comfort and the sound of a familiar voice. And, of course, someone who will listen.

When that crisis call comes (and you can bet it will), you as the parent must take it as the ultimate compliment, says Pickhardt.

“It says that your child feels connected to you. It says that they believe you have what it takes to help them feel better when they run into difficulty. It says they trust you,” notes Pickhardt.

So, when that crisis call suddenly lights up your cell phone in the middle of a business meeting — or the middle of the night —  it all comes down to coaching your child towards the daylight he or she can’t quite see.  It’s about being there for your kid and welcoming each call.

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