Anxious Parents Are the Ones Who Need Help

This month, across the country, a new cohort of students is being accepted into colleges. And, if recent trends continue, the start of the new school year will kick off another record-breaking season for anxiety on campus.

I’m talking about the parents. The kids are mostly fine.

Let me explain. Most emotions, even unpleasant ones, are normal. But the word is out about increasing rates of mental health problems on campus, and that’s got parents worrying. Fair enough. The statistics are startling — in 2022, nearly 14 percent of 18- to 25-year-olds reported having serious thoughts about suicide.

But parents are allowing their anxiety to take over, and it’s not helping anyone, least of all their children. If a child calls home too much, there must be a crisis! And if a child calls too little, there must be a crisis! Either way, the panicked parent picks up the phone and calls the college counseling center to talk to someone like me.

I am a psychiatrist who has worked at a major university’s mental health clinic for 16 years. Much of next year’s freshman class was born the year before I started working here. Technically, my job is to keep my door open and help students through crises, big and small. But I have also developed a comprehensive approach to the assessment and treatment of anxious parents.

The typical call from a parent begins like this: “I think my son/daughter is suffering from anxiety.” My typical reply is: “Anxiety in this setting is usually normal, because major life transitions like living away from home for the first time are commonly associated with elevated anxiety.” Parents used to be satisfied with this kind of answer, thanked me, hung up, called their children and encouraged them to think long-term: “This too shall pass.” And most everyone carried on.

But these days this kind of thinking just convinces parents that I don’t know what I’m talking about. In the circular logic of mental health awareness, a clinician’s reassurance that situational anxiety is most likely normal and time-limited leads a parent to believe that the clinician may be missing a serious mental health condition.

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