Now that the school year is well under way, most parents have adjusted to the reality of their children being in class – whether it's kindergarten, university or somewhere in between. These adjustments can be challenging whatever the age of the child. But in particular, adjusting to school during the transition years into adulthood (16 to 25) can be tough.
These are the years when the mental-health challenges of childhood and adolescence may evolve into the mental disorders of adulthood. These are also the years of the highest prevalence of substance abuse and mood disorders and the highest attendance at mental-health professionals' offices and emergency rooms for mental-health problems.
The stress of adjusting to university or college is very real, even for the most resilient, but especially for students with a mental-health challenge. Parents' anxiety about this transition is no doubt even greater for parents whose child has a serious mental-health or developmental challenge (such as autism) or an addiction problem. These parents are bound to feel an amplified sense of concern about leaving their child in an environment where they are no longer under their watchful eye.
There are ways to mitigate the stress for parents, and the first is to prepare early. And I'm not talking about the summer, or even the year, before. The time to start is as early as 16 years of age.
Adolescents need to begin taking responsibility for their medications and for self-monitoring of their mental health. These are usually the tasks of parenthood but there comes a time to hand this responsibility over to your teenager. It can be difficult giving up these roles but it is critical that our kids understand their diagnosis and the early signs of a relapse, have a few simple coping strategies to resort to when under stress and know the side effects of the medications they are taking.
The most important challenges of university or college include time management, independent study habits and navigating the dangers, and joys, of peer and romantic relationships. A recent article I read said that the key to mental health was the ability to keep learning and forgetting; learning stress-management skills and to have the ability to forget the trials and tribulations of peer and romantic relationships. Developing these skills should be a focus of the last one or two years before going off to university and college. Getting into a study routine, ensuring a good night's sleep and learning how to distract oneself from stressful situations are key skills that parents should help their kids master.
For parents whose children are already at university, there are ways to gain some peace of mind. If you haven't already done so, learn about the services for mental health, disabilities and accessibility that are available at your child's institution. Many universities and colleges (but not all) have such services for students. (If your child is contemplating which school to attend, it is worth checking out the resources available and making a comparison between institutions – this could tip the scales when choosing schools.)
Registering at the disability office or health service of the college or university once school starts can be helpful. These departments can assist the student with setting a schedule that will be manageable for them. This also allows for the transfer of medical records or documentation of the disability so that appropriate accommodations may occur. Finally, it is important to stay in touch once your child is off to university or college. Some kids like to keep in touch daily, others prefer much less frequent communication. Having a discussion with your child about the mode and frequency of communication will ease anxiety on both sides. (I am thankful my kids went off to school before I had to learn how to use Facebook!)
Keeping the lines of communication open is more important that trying to control study time and ensuring your child gets good marks. At some point, you as a parent have to give up control and this can be as hard for you as the transition to university or college can be for your child. You are in for a lifetime of advice and support but the form that takes has to change with each developmental stage. And the transition into adulthood is perhaps the most difficult from both perspectives.
Health Advisor contributors share their knowledge in fields ranging from fitness to psychology, pediatrics to aging.
Dr. Peter Szatmari is chief of the Child and Youth Mental Health Collaborative at SickKids, CAMH and the University of Toronto.