University of Wisconsin–Madison

Parenting in the Age of Anxiety

A student studies in the Wisconsin School of Business Library in Grainger Hall.
College is a transitional time for both students and their families. But there are many professionals at the UW dedicated to ensuring your student’s success. (Photo by Jeff Miller / UW–Madison)

Social research shows that parental involvement is as intensive as it’s ever been, even through the college years. At the same time, reports of student anxiety and fear of failure are at all-time-highs. How can parents strike the right balance between taking care and taking over?

Your student has just moved into the dorms. After you say your tearful goodbyes, arrive back home, and start to adjust to an empty nest, you get a call. Your student says, “There’s a smell coming from my room. It’s horrible!” Your student is distracted and feeling stressed.

What do you do?

Stories like these are shared each summer at Student Orientation and Registration (SOAR) by parents who have sent a student to college before. Initially, the father wanted to get involved directly. Ultimately, he decided that his student could work it out himself. And he was right.

Parenting Styles

Research shows that an increasing number of parents would make that call to the university. Parents are more involved with their students’ lives than ever before, even through the college years, a practice social researchers call “intensive parenting.” It’s demanding, time-intensive, highly emotionally involved, and often, more expensive than more hands-off parenting approaches. Social scientists have long suspected that more intensive parenting is partly a result of anxiety over their students’ chances for success in an increasingly competitive economy.

In extreme cases, parental anxiety can result in desperate actions. Last month’s college admissions scandal rocked the nation with its exposure of bribery, falsified GPAs, and duplicity. Of course, as Chancellor Rebecca Blank said in her response to the scandal, most people would not participate in fraud to get students admitted to college. But there is evidence that even on a smaller scale, things aren’t the way they used to be.

College is a time of transition for both students and their families, says Andrea Lawson, interim director of mental health services at University Health Services (UHS). That transition is not the same for all families. “Parents have to adjust to that just as students are adjusting,” she says. “And that can come with some complex negotiations about how that plays out.” These transitions can bring with it a great deal of anxiety on the part of both parents and their students. While the anxiety is normal, she says, some of the ways of dealing with it are healthier—and more helpful—than others.

“One thing we know about college students is that more than ever, they identify their parents and families as their best friends and greatest confidants,” says Parent and Family Program Associate Director Stephanie Benson-Gonzales. While such closeness can be a great advantage in early intervention for problems students are facing, students need to be empowered to take responsibility for their own well-being, Benson-Gonzales says.

“I’ve been in meetings where the parent did all the talking. And the student was sitting there, totally disengaged,” adds Rachael Willits, assistant director of the Dean of Students Office, “And I will say [to the parent], ‘It’s great to hear from you, but these are the concerns your student is having, so I need to hear from them.’ Because otherwise it does a disservice to the student, really.”

Not all parents react the same way. Rob Sepich, student relations manager at UHS, says many students tell him their parents take a markedly hands-off approach. As with any extreme, this approach, too, can exacerbate the anxieties of students. “I’m seeing some students who are even more anxious—because the pressure to succeed is entirely self-imposed,” Sepich says.

There’s speculation that such a hands-off approach could be an overcorrection due to the negative stigma surrounding terms like “helicopter parent.” “Mental health issues have gotten so much more significant nationally, [and] parents might feel more responsible for adding that pressure. So they’ve maybe taken their foot off the gas a bit, and [while] well-intentioned, it might be they’ve taken it off so much [that] students seem to think, ‘Well, now I’ve got to put the pressure on myself.’ ”

Student anxiety can have harmful mental and physical health effects, including sleep disturbances, changes in eating habits, inability to concentrate, and more, Sepich says.

Different Dimensions of Support

When we think about supporting students during college, finances may be what first comes to mind. But there are many more important ways to provide support to your student.

Being physically present when possible is one way. “A lot of my students’ families cannot provide financial support at all. In fact, a lot of the students actually send money back to their families,” says Rachelle Eilers, senior advisor for the Chican@ & Latin@ Studies Program at UW–Madison. But when parents visit campus and see how students are experiencing college, “it’s so special,” she says.

Emotional support is also essential. “I think it looks different for every family,” Benson-Gonzales says. “Encourage your student and remind them of how they’ve handled adversity before—and how they’ve come out on the other end. Leaning into challenge and learning how to navigate situations are important skills for students to develop in college.” Encouraging new experiences, such as getting a campus job or joining a new club (the UW has nearly 900 student organizations), can help students transition to college in healthy ways.

The UW’s experts encourage parents of college students to think of themselves as a coach. “I’ve always found it refreshing when parents say, ‘I’m not going to fix everything for you,’ [instead of] trying to make all consequences go away for the student,” Willits says,

“My advice would be to not make decisions for your students, but to help the student understand their own perspective, how it plays with the values that you have instilled,” Lawson adds. “Saying, ‘I support you in what you do,’ might just be what they need to take that leap of faith.”

The Gift of Failure

Failure is an inevitable—and important—fact of life. Yet many of the UW experts say the fear of failure is at an all-time high for students. Eilers says her students are “just terrified” to fail. They see each failure as letting down their family. Showing students that failure is normal can help them grow more resilient.

“I think failure is great,” Sepich says. “We need to mess up.” He stresses to his students that success isn’t about avoiding failure at all costs, but instead about learning from mistakes—and learning how to bounce back.

“What safer place to make mistakes than college?” Benson-Gonzales adds, noting the availability of support systems, resources, advisers, professors, and more. “There are many people on this campus whose whole job is to support your student’s success.”

While a parent’s protective instinct may be to downplay the disappointment or validate excuses, growth comes from adversity. “I’d like to shift the response instead to saying, ‘Excellent. That’s a learning opportunity,’” Benson-Gonzales says.

Trusting Your Student and Yourself

Parents and family members should also remember to take care of themselves. Cut yourself some slack and remember this is a learning process for you as well as your student, Lawson says. “You don’t know all the answers. Many of you have never been in this position before. And even if you have, things are different now. And students are all different. Give yourself permission to not know.”

Benson-Gonzales cites the work of author Shefali Tsabary, who wrote The Conscious Parent. Tsabary defines the role of the parent as seeing and acknowledging their children for who they are at a particular point in time, especially in moments of great transition. Tsabary advises parents to become aware of their own anxieties and desires, how those might affect their student, and to allow their student to chart a unique path. Trusting that your student will make the right decision, handle any difficulties, and come out okay on the other end is all part of that transition.

College is a massive transition for the whole family. The path to independence can be tough at times, for both students and their parents. But that doesn’t mean your role as a parent is finished. “Similar to when they’re a toddler, you look over their shoulder and say, ‘I know you can do it. You’ll fall down; but that’s okay.’ Eighteen months old, eighteen years old. It’s the same,” Sepich says,

Having faith that “things will usually work out” is key, Benson-Gonzales says. Just think of the student with the smelly room. After a few weeks, the father checked in with his student, “How’s the smell?” he asked. “Oh, that,” the student answered. “Turns out I left some old food in the garbage can.”

—Angela Barian


Resources

  • Dean of Students Office – In the Dean of Students office is a group of professionals dedicated to helping students and families with academic issues, bias incidents, DACA/undocumented student support, financial issues, and more
  • University Health Services – UHS offers medical services, mental health, violence prevention, survivor services, and more
  • Parent and Family Program – The Parent and Family Program is your central resource. The website’s “resources” tab has information on academics, housing, transportation, financial issues, and much more
  • Shefaly Tsabary on Oprah Winfrey’s “SuperSoul Conversations Podcast” – In this podcast, Dr. Tsabary discusses the research and viewpoint on parenting that Stephanie Benson-Gonzales referenced in the story