Tips for helping teens headed college or coming home

'Tis the season of college acceptances. Social media feeds are full of proud parents making announcements. Graduating high school is indeed an exciting time filled with anticipation of setting off into young adult life. Yet, teens are still Adults In Training. This time can be filled with as many highs and lows as prior teen years.

Recently, I've noticed more high school grads who head to college and return home before semester's end, often to attend intensive mental health services due to extreme stress. They're struggling emotionally, socially and academically. Google shows several programs available for young adults experiencing Failure to Launch Syndrome (not an actual diagnosis). Some of them are geared specifically toward young men who, according to research, consider quitting college at a much higher rate than women and have been less likely to enroll in college at all for the last two decades.

Prior to the pandemic, teens were showing signs of struggle around the college trajectory as it exists today, which includes numerous tours, constructing a college "resume," GPA angst and piling on AP classes. Several authors wrote about the trend of helicopter parenting. During the pandemic, socializing with peers took on a new form, families struggled with new kinds of stress and real life experiences as well as important milestones were altered or altogether missed. Many teens fared well while others had a difficult time resurfacing from developmental derailment, meaning they missed out on crucial tasks for growth due to the impact of trauma.

So, when to worry if your child seems stalled on the young adult path? Some young people simply need time and support around catching up on missed aspects of development while others may be experiencing deeper issues - such as mental health or substance abuse issues - that are keeping them stuck and require professional attention.

Here are some ways to provide support:

• For teens heading to college, be sure they know how to access campus counseling services.

Encourage open communication with your child whether it's around exciting or disappointing news. This decreases the chance of learning late in the game your child hasn't been attending classes and is depressed.

• If your teen has withdrawn from college due to extreme stress, be sure to support them in accessing mental health services not only to address the symptoms they're experiencing, but to explore what led to the stress and create a positive set of coping skills.

• When you have a teen who is hesitant to attend college or to return to school, normalize the struggle. If you've addressed deeper issues your child is having, consider that college can be an option at any time in life. It just may be in a more non-traditional manner.

Authors William Stixrud and Ned Johnson refer to college as "a very expensive four year party" if your child isn't ready. There is valuable experience in other post-high school options, such as gap years including traveling or signing up for volunteer projects or working a full-time job. Continue to encourage development by having your teen take on responsibilities where they will learn life skills and increase confidence.

It is difficult to witness your child struggle. It's also hard to be the kid who is struggling, especially living in an area where pressure for success is high. Instead of failing to launch, I consider these young people as figuring out how to do so.

- Alisa Messana of Hinsdale is a licensed clinical social worker and mental health consultant who serves as clinical supervisor at The Community House Counseling Center.