Moving can be a stressful experience for anyone. Leaving home (in many cases for the first time) and moving into a new environment full of unknown stressors and a lack of social support is complex, at best. Even the most confident high school student is likely to experience a dip in confidence during the adjustment period. For a student with anxiety, the transition can be overwhelming.

According to data compiled by the National Institute of Mental Health, roughly 32% of adolescents between the ages of 13 and 18 have an anxiety disorder. For adolescents with anxiety disorders, transitioning to college presents an additional level of challenges. For a student with social anxiety, for example, making new friends and joining groups can be difficult. For a student with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), sharing a small space with an unknown roommate is complicated. A student with generalized anxiety is forced to cope with new routines, new professors, new expectations, and new friendships without the proper supports in place to work through these challenges all at once.

Preparation is important. When students with anxiety are unprepared for the transition to college, the stress of being away from home coupled with the task of independence and self-management across all domains can trigger a false belief that the transition is simply too hard, and the student is ill-equipped to handle it. This can result in irrational beliefs and anxious thought patterns that make it difficult for the student to succeed on his own.

When anxious students are prepared for the transition to college and have proper supports in place, on the other hand, the challenges presented appear doable and the student knows how to work through the stress.

Discuss Appropriate Expectations

The straight-A high student school is likely to experience an academic roadblock at some point during college. A student with social anxiety will miss the comfort of a small friend group formed throughout the high school years. Someone who struggles with panic attacks is likely to experience setbacks as new triggers arise.

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Parents and rising college students might approach the transition with a hope that “things will be better in college,” but it is important to ground that optimism in realistic expectations. Discuss how college will differ from high school with academics, social interactions, and self-care and help your student establish healthy expectations to dial down the pressure.

Create a Support Plan

If your college-bound student is currently working with a therapist for anxiety treatment, chances are the therapist is helping him prepare for the transition and figure out a support system on the college campus. If your student isn’t working with a therapist before leaving for college, it’s important to help him create a support plan.

Most college campuses have counseling services available to students, though the waitlist can be long depending on the size of the university. Some colleges now have text lines available for students to seek help on a more immediate basis and many offer support groups and/or workshops for students. The support system that will actually help your student is the one that he will actually utilize during times of increased stress. Talk it over with your adolescent before he makes the transition so that he knows how to access help when he needs it.

For students with anxiety, it also helps to seek out the assigned academic advisor early and find out how to get tutoring and other academic support if necessary.

Review and Address Red Flags

When anxious kids live at home, their parents tend to take an active role in watching for signs of increased anxiety. Chances are, you know your teen’s triggers and symptoms quite well. When transitioning to college, however, it’s helpful for him to be aware of his own red flags and symptoms.

Talk about common red flags and help your young adult review his own triggers and stress points. Some things to watch for include:

  • Avoidance
  • Procrastination
  • Changes in sleep habits
  • Changes in eating habits
  • Psychosomatic issues (headaches, stomachaches, back, neck, and/or shoulder pain)
  • Social isolation
  • Increased feelings of anger or frustration
  • Feeling overwhelmed
  • Maladaptive coping strategies (alcohol use, overuse of technology)

Discuss Coping Skills that Work

A big piece of anxiety management away from home is internalizing the anxiety toolkit that worked at home. Help him build a toolkit for his dorm room by reviewing what did and didn’t work in high school and adding new resources available on the college campus. This might include the following:

  • Meditation apps and mental health apps
  • Daily exercise (look into exercise programs available on campus)
  • Journaling
  • Therapy
  • Deep breathing
  • Progressive muscle relaxation
  • Breaking down tasks into manageable pieces
  • Establish a weekly check-in with a parent and/or sibling
  • Practice visualization
  • Use self-talk to reframe anxious thoughts

Talk About Self-Care

College can be a ton of fun, but it can also be difficult to maintain healthy habits. All college students need plenty of sleep, regular exercise, and a healthy diet, but these “basics” are particularly important for students with anxiety. Insufficient sleep can result in increased symptoms of anxiety.

One challenge new college students face is learning to share space with a roommate and adjusting to different schedules. Encourage them to be open and honest about sleep needs so that he can work out a healthy balance that works for him and his roommate.

Check-In Periodically

The message you want to send is that your teen is ready for this important experience and can make this transition independently. That can be difficult when parents have been in the habit of serving as the anxiety management team leader during the high school years. College students need to know that they can manage and cope with their anxiety independently and that help is available on campus should they need it.

The best thing for you to do is to establish a weekly check-in to catch up and provide support while also encouraging him to seek out help on campus if his anxiety increases. In empowering your student to utilize the resources available in his new environment, you send a positive message to your him: You can do this.

Last Updated: Sep 26, 2018