How to Talk About Sensitive Issues

Asian college student and parents

Students often express their stress and anxiety through repeated and intense dissatisfaction with the school, their roommates, classmates, or faculty. They may also exhibit irritability, mood swings, and changes in how they relate to you as their parents or concerned family members.

You know your student better than anyone and you may pick up on some cues that they are having a difficult time before others notice. While it is typical for many young adults to seek independence from their families and avoid discussing things that are not going well, students need the emotional support and love that their family can provide.

 The top two barriers found by the National Alliance on Mental Illness for students to seek out mental health services and supports were stigma (36%) and having a busy schedule (34%)

National Alliance on Mental Illness, 2012

It can be challenging for parents and for students to talk about the possibility that the student needs help. Here are some suggestions on talking with your student:

  • Choose a time to talk when things are not rushed, and where your student can talk to you privately.
  • Don’t avoid bringing up the subject of stress and mental health concerns. Acknowledge that you know this can be a stressful time in your child’s life and ask directly how they are handling the stress and if they are OK. If you have reason to be concerned, express your concern in specific, nonjudgmental ways. Be honest and direct; say what you mean, and mean what you say.
  • The most helpful messages you can offer your student are “I love you,” “I believe in you,” “I care about how you are doing,” and if your student is struggling, “I want you to get some help.”
  • If your student shares some difficult information with you, the most helpful response is to calmly and carefully listen to what he or she is saying. It can be difficult to listen without interrupting or let your own thoughts interfere, but it is important to attend to what your student is saying. It is helpful to acknowledge that what your student is thinking and feeling about their situation is their experience, even if you have a different perspective.
  • Offer non-judgmental support. You may have your own reactions, which are completely natural for a parent to have (such as not approving of a choice your student made or feeling angry that your student is not doing well academically). But expressing those in the moment to your student is more likely to shut down the communication than lead to helpful support and problem solving.
  • Be knowledgeable of and encourage your student to take advantage of the resources available at the college to help students succeed.
  • Offer to help your student in whatever ways you can to help them cope.
  • Communicate hope by reminding your student that there are always options, you believe they can get through this difficult time, and that things tend to look different with time and action.

This information was originally compiled by Glenn Hirsch, Ph.D., L.P., Director of Student Counseling Services, University of Minnesota.