University Mental Health Day: How can I help my teenager prepare psychologically for uni?
Is there a teenager in your household heading to university later this year? For many, this will be their first time living away from home – and parents and carers are going to want to help them get ready.
Beyond the obvious though (like kitting them out with pots and pans and hoping at least some of their student loan is spent on groceries), you might be thinking about how you can help them prepare psychologically and support their mental wellbeing at university.
We talked to a mental health expert and university wellbeing advisor…
Be aware but positiveIt’s definitely important to be aware of mental health at university. But Dr Gabrielle Pendlebury, chief medical officer at Onebright (onebright.com), the UK’s largest outpatient mental healthcare company, says it’s important to “think about the positives” as well.
“This is going to be a great time of their lives. Three years having fun, with a bit of studying on the side!” says Pendlebury. “It’s about going into it with a positive outlook and realising there will be challenges – but setting it up so they are ready to problem-solve, rather than be overwhelmed by things.”
It’s “a time of big changes with many new things to navigate,” acknowledges Rebecca Bow, senior wellbeing adviser at Birmingham City University, who says it’s usual for students to experience “exciting” and “challenging” moments, so it can “sometimes feel like a bit of a bumpy ride”.
Agree a communication planBow says it’s a good idea to “have a plan about when and how they’ll be keeping in touch and what feels right for everybody involved”. Pendlebury notes it can be a “very fine balance” between being supportive and knowing how intrusive to be (especially when ‘empty nest syndrome’ hits) and you will “want to think about how you’re changing the communication with [them] so that it’s age-appropriate as they become adults”.
Discussing it together means you can keep connections up and have those regular check-ins in a way that suits your family and your young person’s needs. For some it might be a WhatsApp group, says Bow. “It might be a weekly phone call, or a monthly visit, perhaps FaceTime with the family pets,” adds Pendlebury.
Support is available
If they do reach out and tell you they’re having a hard time, Bow says “the most important thing is to give them space to talk about it and to listen”.
Pendlebury adds: “Listening sounds very easy, but if you think your child is distressed, it can be very hard to just listen and not jump to conclusions. So you really want to be curious, non-judgemental and set up that line of communication.”
Bow says it’s important to “reassure them that those heightened emotions [especially around exam times and during the first term] can be usual. But if that then carried on and was carrying on longer than usual when they’re feeling stressed or anxious, then encourage them to look at the wider support that’s available and how they can access that, and perhaps think about checking in more often as well.”
They can find out about wellbeing services at their university at open days and welcome events – but you might want to help them look it up in advance. Are there specific services for autistic students, those with dyslexia and social anxiety, for example? Encourage them to register with a GP in good time too. They can also find resources online and access free counselling and helplines through organisations like Student Minds (studentminds.org.uk).
Hobbies and self-care“Obviously, their course can feel like the big focus, but are there things they might need outside of that to feel happy at university?” asks Bow. “If they’re really keen on exercise for example, or they’re in a dance group, are there ways they could get involved in that sort of thing? Quite often there are lots of societies and activities available at university [open days and welcome events will be great for this], but also in their local area, do they need to do a little research on that?”
Then there’s general things like “eating well, getting plenty of exercise, getting enough sleep,” says Pendlebury. “Are they living in a tidy living space, will they set achievable goals, and will they reward themselves so that they enjoy not just the successes but the process?”
Bow adds: “They hopefully have established a bit of self-care or know what they need to do to look after themselves while they’re at home, and make sure they feel comfortable and happy. For example, for some people it’s really important to have a routine, or to stay active or busy, or they might need a bit more downtime. It’s about thinking about what they need as an individual, and encouraging them to think about those things.”
Practice and prep
They’ll likely be facing a lot of firsts – and while learning and finding solutions and coping strategies is part of life, a bit of practice and prep can go a long way. Pendlebury suggests sitting down to “discuss hypothetical events” together.
“Like what would happen if they had no money for food, or to do something exciting that the other students are doing – would they get a part time job, would they contact their parents? How would they cope if they weren’t making the friends they wanted to make? It’s usual in the first term to make lots of friends that you later find you don’t actually have a lot in common with, and then you make a new set of friends,” she says. “It’s about raising awareness of these sorts of situations, so the young person is sort of problem-solving before they get there.”
Other important topics are things like what they’ll do if they’re offered more alcohol than they’re used to, or drugs, as well safe sex and consent. A lot of the time, it’s about opening those channels of safe and non-judgemental communication and reassuring them they can seek support at any point and say no to anything they’re not comfortable with.
Think about practical stuff too, says Bow. “Have a few conversations about what might be helpful. What do they need to feel more comfortable [in new accommodation]? If they’re moving to a completely new area, would it be helpful to visit and get to know the area a bit beforehand? Do they need support with things like budgeting or cooking, planning a basic pantry [or] practising some meals?”
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