Being a parent to a college-aged child is not without its own set of difficulties. You may be experiencing a wide range of emotions from fear and anxiety to excitement and relief. Even for a parent who has seen multiple children through college, it’s typical to still have questions and uncertainties about the entire process.

If your child is in college—particularly if far from home—it’s normal to feel a certain amount of detachment and distance from their lives. It may be crucial, however, that you remain involved in your children’s lives now more than ever. College is a difficult time for many young people, and as a parent, you must stay on the lookout for warning signs that your child may be in over their head.

Well-disguised suffering

College-aged students are particularly vulnerable to depression, and roughly 1,100 undergraduates commit suicide each year. On the outside, these students often appear the “poster children” for success: attractive, well liked, athletic, and intelligent. On the inside, however, they are lost and screaming for someone to help. It often takes a much closer look to discover well-buried pain and suffering.

Common warning signs and behavior changes

While it is, unfortunately, impossible to anticipate each and every suicide, but most young adults display red flags that may alert close friends or loved ones to their secret struggle with college life. Common warning sides may include:

  • Substance abuse
  • Sudden or increased partying
  • Increase, decrease, or overall change in sleep patterns
  • Dramatic weight loss or gain
  • Unexplained headaches or other aches and pains
  • Participation in unprotected or otherwise unsafe sex
  • Significant increase or decrease in appetite
  • Trouble concentrating in class; inability to focus or to complete assignments
  • Frequently skipping class
  • Development or greater manifestation of anxiety or similar mental illnesses

Helping your child from afar

You can play a large role in helping to reduce your child’s stress by minimizing unnecessary aims for “perfection.” Too often, young college students are striving to be impossibly perfected versions of themselves. These individuals end up feeling that their best simply isn’t ever good enough.

If your child is feeling overwhelmed, he or she may not know where to turn for help, and may fear rejection or ridicule from peers who seem to have everything under control. Additionally, they may simply believe that such high stress levels are normal and unavoidable.

As a parent, if you see your child exhibiting warning signs, it’s important to keep a line of honest communication open. Your child needs to know that he or she is loved unconditionally, and that you have no unrealistic expectations about their success.

While you may not be able to physically be present with your child while they are at school, you can still help. If they reach out and tell you that they are feeling stressed, you can refer them to the school’s on campus mental health clinic. You can also teach your child healthy coping mechanisms and the importance of a balanced life.

As you keep your line of communication constantly open, reiterate that there is a difference between “I did something bad” and “I am bad.” Self-worth should not come from a GPA, sorority, or significant other. Ensuring your child has a genuine support network, and a strong background in self-care, can help set them up for success when they head off to college.

Depression, and suicidal thoughts and behaviors, should never be taken lightly by parents. If your child opens up to you about such struggles, reach out for help from the appropriate professionals immediately. By staying involved in your child’s life and offering support unconditionally, you can play a large role in helping your child have a safe and successful life away from home.