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Helping Young Adults Navigate a Not-So-Normal College Year

Young Adults Clinical Team

(Note: We refer to “your young adult child” as they/them throughout the article. As you read, feel free to adapt the writing to the pronouns that your child uses.) 

College support Open Sky Wilderness

Let’s imagine September 2020 without coronavirus. Football teams would be competing in front of packed stadiums. Music lovers would be dancing shoulder to shoulder at music festivals. College students would be settling into full classes and dorm life. Instead, sports teams are competing to virtual crowds and bands are playing for virtual audiences. College students are experiencing changed plans, canceled events, missed milestones, stringent social distancing protocols, and/or completely virtual classes streamed online at home.  

Even without COVID and its mental health and academic impacts, transitioning to college can be a struggle. According to a study by the American Psychological Association, 61% of college students seeking counseling reported having anxiety. A survey of college presidents found that the most frequent mental health issues on campus were anxiety, depression, substance addiction, and suicidal ideation. When young adults who have struggled with college arrive at Open Sky, they often report, “I couldn’t get out of the cycle,” “nothing seemed to work,” and “things just fell apart.”    

When combined with the added stress and unpredictability brought on by COVID, it’s safe to say these mental health issues are enhanced. In fact, a study conducted by the nonprofit Active Minds found that one in five college students say their mental health has significantly worsened during the coronavirus pandemic.  

So, how can parents help?

Keep in mind, it’s okay for your child to feel what they are feeling and express their feelings with others. Emotional expression is vital to our mental health, especially in the middle of a global pandemic. It is normal for your child to experience sadness, disappointment, frustration, and/or anxiety as they grapple with a not-so-normal college experience. Allow your child to feel what they are feeling and share these feelings with you. Provide a safe space for your child to communicate their feelings by utilizing reflective listening skills.    

Encourage your child to stay focused on the present. We can be more confident in what the present moment holds than what the future holds. Encourage your child to think about what they can accomplish today, be grateful for today, and what self-care they can practice today.    

Limit your own time tuning in to the “latest” news. Model self-care. It’s amazing what the constant barrage of “breaking news” can do to our sense of wellbeing. Be cognizant of your personal viewing habits. Consider taking a few minutes each day to catch up on the news and then take a break for self-care, get outdoors, and focus on things that add value to your life. Prioritizing your own mental health above all else not only supports your wellbeing but allows you to be of support to your child.   

Be mindful of your own patterns. When our children are struggling, there is a natural impulse as parents to swoop in and fix things. Recognize your own fears and instincts to problem-solve. Then, take a step back from those emotions and see the big picture. Life will continue to present challenges and your young adult child needs to develop the skills to deal with these challenges. 

If your child returns home, work together to set boundaries and expectations (on both ends). Imagine returning home for online college classes after experiencing some level of adulthood and autonomy. Not only was this “not the plan” for you; it wasn’t the plan for your young adult child. During this time, strive to find the balance of being caring without being intrusive. It can be challenging to manage the intricacies of family relationships, even under the best of circumstances. Be patient with each other and extend each other some grace. It’s a new and unexpected experience for everyone. Be open with your child about your feelings and expectations and remember that being back home is a big transition for your child as well. They may be grieving the loss of a college experience and feeling unsettled about their path at this time. Work together as a family to set boundaries that respect you and your home, and your young adult child’s need for independence and autonomy.   

Encourage your child to seek out available support and resources. Does your young adult child’s college counseling center provide virtual individual sessions or online resources? Do they have—or can they point your young adult child to—groups that meet with COVID precautions in mind?  If the college doesn’t provide such support, explore telehealth options for individual therapy and support. Whether on campus or temporarily at home, encourage your young adult child to research available resources. By doing so, they gain valuable practice in seeking what they need. This can be tremendously empowering!    

What if a pause is in order?

Taking a break from school does not mean your young adult child has failed! Academic success is not necessarily a sign of overall health. Your child’s challenges may require more focus and individualized attention and/or an entirely different setting, temporarily absent of school pressures, coronavirus headlines, and societal demands. Taking time to attend to one’s mental health is not only important, but doing so can help set the stage for a more meaningful college (or online college) experience in the future.   

Brian Leidal Therapist Open Sky 

How can wilderness therapy help?

Young adults at Open Sky usually have some insight into what isn’t working for them. Engaging in the program and talking about challenges and fears in a safe and supportive environment is just the beginning. At Open Sky, we work with young adults to develop effective self-care strategies and coping and problem-solving skills. We help students to discover and build on their inherent strengths. Key components include: 

Self-care: From hygiene to mindfulness practices, self-care is an essential foundation for therapeutic work.

Challenge: Daily chores and hard skills like making fires with a bow drill, building shelters, and hiking increase self-efficacy, confidence, and self-esteem. Changes in the weather also pose unique challenges to which students must respond and adapt.

StructureandBalance: Daily life at Open Sky provides for growth and learning in areas related to executive functioning. Students integrate organizational and time management skills while balancing assignments and personal time. Open Sky’s structure also includes time for meaningful self-reflection.

Community: Each member of the team as well as the guides work together to complete daily tasks to support the group. Students learn to give and receive support, advocate for themselves, and challenge one another within an atmosphere of emotional safety and care. Past patterns of passive, withdrawn, or aggressive communication begin to subside as students gain competency with new communication skills. 

The team community support students struggling with college and online learning.

Wilderness is a time for young adults to become curious and passionate explorers of their own lives. Though an interruption in college is too often labeled as a “setback,” the experience can ignite growth and understanding, creating space for a healthy reset which ultimately leads to a more fulfilling and successful college experience.  

While the 2020 school year presents unique challenges, it can still be a time for young adults to learn and grow. Each new challenge is also an opportunity as a parent to role model flexibility and courage. Strive to connect with your child as an adult in need of both autonomy and structure. Whether this school year leads to on-campus classes, online college classes, or on-the-ground learning in wilderness therapy, we hope you can embrace the challenge and extend grace to yourselves and your loved ones in the process.

September 10th, 2020

Young Adults Clinical Team