How parents can check in with college students home for the holidays

Why some students might be more at risk than others for depression and anxiety in college

Thanksgiving might be a good time for parents to do a wellness check with their children who are home from college; and a D.C. therapist has tips to help that go smoothly.

Three out of five of the nation’s college students meet the criteria for at least one mental health problem, according to the 2020-2021 school year Healthy Minds Study.

“When we say the criteria, typically we’re talking about a cluster of symptoms that fall under one diagnosis. Depression and anxiety tend to be where most students fall. Falling right behind that is trauma or stressor-related disorders. And right behind that is neurodevelopmental disorders, such as ADHD or autism,” said Nyasha Chikowore, a clinical psychologist at Capital Center for Psychotherapy and Wellness who has doctoral degree in clinical psychology.

Nyasha Chikowore, clinical psychologist with the Capital Center for Psychotherapy and Wellness. (Courtesy Nyasha Chikowore)

The trauma category could be anything from being in a car accident to being assaulted or witnessing violence or anything that can be deemed traumatic to someone, such as the shooting deaths of three University of Virginia football players.

The stress of college on students might just be part of the natural development of turning into young adults.

“But we do want to be mindful that if the transition seems like it’s going in a downhill trajectory, we just want to be aware of that, and empathize with your child or open a safe space for them to communicate about what they’re experiencing; and also validate their concerns,” Chikowore said.

Many colleges and universities have counseling centers. Chikowore suggests parents inquire, if needed, about whether the counseling center has space, whether it sees children throughout the year, or have only a set number of sessions students can attend for free.

“You also want to be able to look for private practices or other therapists and psychologists in your child’s school’s neighborhood, to see if there’s any other resources that they can go to outside of school,” she said. “All in all, you want to normalize the fact that being in college is a hard thing, and everyone’s doing their best, and that your child should be able to reach out whenever they need help.”

Red flags for parents that might suggest something is not quite right with their child can include poor hygiene, big changes in weight — beyond the freshman 15 — drastic changes in appearance, the appearance of scars or random injuries and a drastic change in perspective, such as going from positive to pessimistic or talking about being hopeless or about themselves as being a failure.

Chikowore said parents should ask kids about academics, such as whether they’re missing class or not turning in assignments. And, pay attention to their social lives.

“Are your kids enjoying friends? Are they going out with people? Are they answering your phone calls? Or are they reporting that they’re staying in their rooms most of the time? Because when kids are withdrawing, that’s a big sign of depression or something going wrong,” she said.

How do you create a safe space for serious talks?

If previous conversations have resulted in parents getting upset or having a strong reaction, their children might become skeptical and want to avoid discussing issues.

“So it’s a good thing for the parents to say, ‘Hey, I know I usually react this way. But in this instance, I’m really concerned and I want to know everything that’s going on with you. And I’m not going to have the usual reaction that I do,'” Chikowore advised.

Parents can begin by saying the time will be reserved for the child to talk about anything they want.

“I won’t be upset. I’m going to listen. I won’t speak. I want you to just say everything that’s going on, and then we can work on what to do,” Chikowore suggested.

If you or someone you know is struggling or in crisis, help is available by calling or texting 988. A live chat is available at — scroll down to the bottom of the page and look to the left for the “Chat With Lifeline” button.

Kristi King

Kristi King is a veteran reporter who has been working in the WTOP newsroom since 1990. She covers everything from breaking news to consumer concerns and the latest medical developments.

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