Parenting College Students Through Difficult Situations

Emotionally Supporting College students Through Difficult Situations

William Stixrud, clinical neuropsychologist and Ned Johnson, founder of test-preparation company PrepMatters, wrote a new book called “What Do You Say? How to Talk With Kids to Build Motivation, Stress Tolerance and a Happy Home” to teach parents of teens and college how to motivate them without taking over their lives.

We interviewed Ned Johnson to get his best tips on balancing listening and problem solving when someone you care about hits a life snag. 

 Close to a parent. Don’t tell us what to do. Listen without judging.

Don’t Talk Them Out of Hard Feelings.

Avoiding talking about hard feelings by saying “Don’t worry about it!” or “Give it time and everything will naturally work itself out.” can promote both avoiding the actual problem and having your teen feel unheard.

“Problems happen in life and minimizing them may annoy the teen,” says Johnson. Often, you’ll end up with the opposite effect of what you want. The teen will likely shut down and avoid hearing you and involving you in problem solving. Instead, he suggests reflective / active listening to repeat what they say back to make sure you hear every word. Once everyone’s calm, you can think about solutions. 

Don’t Answer Questions You Don’t Know

There’s a tendency that as parents you think you know what’s best for your student. However, you can’t necessarily advise them on how to tackle an English problem when you’re an accountant. Suggest other sources of help like their English professor for an English class problem or a dorm resident assistant for a dorm issue. 

Check in Once in a While

It’s very common for people to need space when dealing with a difficult time. You can’t force them to deal with the problem when you’re ready to deal with it. Ned’s daughter is very bright but very intense. When he sees she’s not ready to talk and shrugs her shoulders, he tells her, he’s here when ready. About 20 minutes later she’s in the kitchen talking about the issue. It could be months before they’re ready to deal with larger issues, you still can’t force dealing with it. It will only cause rebellion.

If you push, emotions stay high and the teen is likely to rebel and double down on any behavior that avoids problems such as drinking or hanging out with friends that are bad influences.

Remember the Explore Phase

Sometimes we focus so much on not letting emotions get high, we forget the explore phase of solving problems. The point of the exercise is for teens to face problems and fix them the best way they can. Ask open-ended questions, repeat back to kids what you think you heard, and then discuss possible options. Don’t push your decision on what is best or continue to talk when they are done for the day. They’ll likely tune you out. Understand your best way and their best way may be different. Let go of control and listen to why they think each potential solution is best, too.

Be Careful With Your Verbal Approach About Their Friends Not Being Good For Them

Sometimes you may feel it’s your sound advice against everyone else in their lives. It doesn’t work to tell them to get rid of their friends that are bad influences, but you can ask for more detail so they can figure it out for themselves and listen for “change talk.”. For instance, when a school counselor noticed her daughter was having an issue with hanging out with teens that were smoking marijuana, she asked more questions. The girl eventually shared how much money it cost, and the counselor asked what she would do with the extra money. The girl shared some other ways she could spend that money.. A few weeks later, the counselor noticed the girl had a new, long-awaited haircut, which she finally got instead of spending the money on smoking. The magic was in the girl articulating her own reasons for change, rather than being told why to change.

Low Sense of Control Leads to Less Resilience

Two lab rats were being shocked. One rat learned that it could stop the shock by turning a wheel in its cage. The other had a useless wheel. In a clever follow-up experiment, researcher Steve Maier tethered the rats together, allowing Rat A to “save” Rat B. While Rat B surely felt better for being saved, it failed to develop the same resilience as Rat A. Everyone needs some sort of healthy coping mechanism / options for dealing with difficult situations.


Sometimes being a good parent is about both providing comfort and the right environment for finding solutions. That starts with a calm environment before challenging and helping students find solutions.