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How to help your child manage their mental health while at university

Just like our physical health, there are days where our mental health is really thriving, and days where it’s just not as good. Change in particular causes stress, which consequently can test and stretch our resilience.  

So, as a parent, it’s important to check in on your child’s mental health while they’re studying at university. Whether they’re still at home, within driving distance, or in a whole new state (or even country!), it’s likely they’ll be facing some stress and anxiety as they navigate the challenges of university life.  

Although these stresses and emotions can manifest differently in everyone, there are a few signs of precarious mental health that every parent should be aware of. Keep a gentle eye on your child in person or via phone and video call to ensure they’re looking after themselves and are coping with the changes they’re experiencing.  

What to look out for 

Restlessness and nerves  

General anxiety often presents itself in the form of restlessness or nervousness. If your child suffers from anxiety, they may feel nauseous, eat less or more than usual or may struggle sleeping. Anxiety is an all-consuming issue for some,  

Avoidant or anxious behaviours  

Social anxiety is a persistent fear of situations that involve interaction with others. Someone with social anxiety might frequently cancel plans, avoid busy, public places or exhibit nervous tendencies, such as sweating, stammering and blushing around other people.  

Withdrawing from family  

We all have ups and downs and periods where we feel less social overall, but when sad or anxious feelings truly set in, it can affect our willingness to do the things we love or spend time with the people we care about. This can be a sign of depression and is often accompanied by withdrawal from their ‘normal’ life and a reluctance to spend time with friends, family or in wider society.  

Stay aware of these behaviours, which can also include erratic emotions, inability to perform daily tasks (e.g. showering, eating meals, going to bed at appropriate times) and weight loss or gain.

Starting the conversation

If you think your child might be facing mental health challenges, then the best way to begin addressing them is with a simple conversation. Australia’s most well-known mental health and wellbeing organisation, Beyond Blue, offers some tips on starting the conversation.   

1. Simply asking your child how they are is more likely to lead to a more positive conversation. Start with this and see where it leads.  

2. When they share how they feel, acknowledge it.  

3. Explain that mental health is about our range of emotions and how we cope with our lives. Make sure they’re aware that mental health can fluctuate daily and isn’t dictated by anything they’ve done or haven’t done – just like our physical health.  

4. Try to dispel any myths they might have about mental illness. Explain that it is just like other medical illnesses, in that help is available and that there are many others out there experiencing similar things.  

5. Don’t be put off asking if they have concerns. Explain that you’re there for them and listen without judging.  

Communicating with your child about their mental health

If you’ve had that initial conversation and want to delve further into what your child’s going through, here are some things to keep in mind as a parent that ensure that their struggles are treated with the utmost care and respect.  

1. It may be tempting to tell your child that you’re worried about them, but that could put them on edge and make them reluctant to answer your questions.   

2. Avoid phrases like “there’s no need to worry about that” – it can undermine their feelings and doesn't offer them a solution.  

3. As upsetting as it may be to hear that your child is struggling with their mental health, try to remain calm. If your child senses you’re agitated, it may cause them to withdraw and not want to open up to you.  

4. If you are noticeably upset, explain that this conversation is about their emotions, not yours, and that you just want to support them.  

Whatever your child’s going through, as a parent you’re uniquely equipped to give them the help they need – after all, you know them better than anyone. Even opening up the conversation and showing them your support is a vital step. To access support in talking to or seeking help for your child, visit Beyond Blue

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