During these next few years, your student will become part of the most diverse, fascinating, and colorful community you have likely ever encountered. The people they forge relationships with—whether friend, frenemy, sorority sister or soul mate—will play a bigger role than you might have imagined in shaping their future.
Good study habits? Check. An organized schedule? Got it. Making smart decisions? Well in hand. But if you want to know a key factor to succeeding in college, one that is all too often ignored in the pressure-packed campus environment it’s building positive relationships. There is no greater indicator of happiness and success in college than the quality of your relationships—period.
It may come as no surprise to you that positive relationships distinguish the happiest 10 percent of people, but when it comes to thriving on campus, that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Positive relationships in college predict higher quality work, higher GPAs, greater well-being and even greater self-esteem. Whether in pairs or groups, students report that doing homework together is more productive than studying alone. We evolved to survive in groups—it seems as though we are meant to thrive in them as well.
Yet while you may remember spending zero alone time during your college experience, today’s students are choosing to withdraw more and more from the rest of the world during stressful times. In 2014, a study of more than 150,000 college freshmen revealed that more students were spending less time with friends than any previous generation in the past three decades. Do you find this surprising? In 1987, only 18 percent of students spent fewer than five hours a week socializing, but today this number has more than doubled to 39 percent. It is likely no coincidence the number of freshmen reporting frequent depression has almost doubled in just the past five years.
In fact, 90% of college students say that they feel overwhelmed on a regular basis, and according to a 2015 Gallup poll, in the past year, 45% felt that things were hopeless. The answer to these issues? Again, friends play a huge role. When our students tell us that they don’t have time for friends when they are stressed, we tell them that running away from relationships when they are under the gun is like running away from the hospital when their appendix are about to burst! Withdrawing rather than socializing during stress creates more depression, loneliness and decreases one’s ability to cope, but studies show that students deal with stress more effectively when they enjoy positive relationships. Challenging events ranging from exams to pledge periods? Research has shown that people feel less pain when rough times are experienced with friends who care. They feel psychologically safer, and when they befriend peers who have greater willpower or better study habits, they take on these qualities as well. Whether it is on the athletic field, in clubs, in or out of the classroom, making time for friends can help your kiddos be their best on campus.
Not to mention, when stressed out students hide in the library, (or under the covers with Netflix and a sea of Oreos as many of our students report doing) we tell them that it is like running away from the hospital when your appendix are about to burst. There are times when putting down the books, picking up the phone and sharing tough times with someone is exactly what can get their mind right and help them get back to a place where they can learn and deal with challenges most effectively.They need to know at what point, calling it a day (or at least an hour) on academia and calling a running buddy for a trail jog — or a good solid chat — can get them back on track and primed to succeed.
So what can you possibly do as a parent? Are you going to head to campus and bunk up with your kiddo? Call the RA to keep tabs? Hide behind pillars in the campus cafeteria to see if they are eating solo? Making the assumption that the answer is “D: none of the above”, what can you possibly contribute?
First and foremost, as an influential voice in your student’s life, you have the ability to make suggestions to help your stressed-out child. Social pressure and the need to live up to expectations can be blamed on them spending more time focused on their work. The “all work, no play” mentality often results in lower GPAs than their more socially active classmates, so encourage them to pursue more opportunities to be with others. Suggesting they call their BFF or go out for coffee to spend time with peers, may actually be a better alternative to telling your student to “buckle down.” It can be a club, a study group, or just time to breathe with friends, but hearing that you support them in these endeavors can go a long way.
Secondly, helping them celebrate their social successes can make the most out of their efforts. In a process known as active constructive responding, when people respond to good news enthusiastically, energetically, and by asking questions that help the bearer relive a situation, not only do both parties get to celebrate but sharing the news can often be even more enjoyable than when it happened. In a study of college students who were taught this technique, they rated their friendships as closer and more enjoyable just one month later. Modeling this for them can help your relationship with them, and their relationship with others.
Whether they be romantic or social, understanding how essential relationships are to thriving in college is key for you and your child. It may be as important as any other goal that they set. The song had it wrong — you don’t just get by with a little help from your friends — and if you play your parent cards right, your kiddos can do even more than get by — with a little help from their folks they can truly thrive.