Teens heading off to college are busy choosing classes, packing suitcases and preparing for more freedom than ever before. So who has time for a health check-up?
“It’s important to make time,” says Porter Peterson, MD, with Cabarrus Pediatrics at Carolinas HealthCare System. “Keeping kids healthy should be a priority, as the physical and mental stresses of college life – particularly for freshmen – can weigh heavily on adolescents.”
New students face a host of challenges as they transition to college when it comes to maintaining physical heath. Here are a few tips to help your teen stay healthy, or manage an existing health condition, while away from home.
Diet and Exercise
Remind your child that following just a few basic guidelines will go a long way toward keeping their energy up and managing their physical health. Eat breakfast. Keep healthy snacks close by. Put down the chips and don’t engage in “stress eating” while preparing for exams. Drink lots of water and don’t skip meals. Exercise every day, even if it’s just a walk around campus.
Getting enough sleep is key to maintaining health, but a full night’s rest is often difficult to come by in college, between preparing for exams, working a part-time job or managing social obligations. A good guideline for your teen: Strive to get 7 to 9 hours of sleep each night, or take a nap when possible if they can’t get a good night’s rest.
Avoid Drinking and Drugs
“College students can be known for partying, but it’s important to make smart choices to avoid the negative effects of alcohol and drugs,” says Dr. Peterson.
Know Nearby Care Options
Many schools have on-campus health centers that give your child easy access to free or low-cost medical care. Make sure your child knows where campus and other nearby health resources are – before they get sick or need more urgent care.
Existing Illnesses or Conditions
“For any child with a chronic medical condition, it is very important to start with your pediatrician or family doctor and talk with them about a transition of care plan,” says Dr. Peterson. “Your physician may know other physicians in the area where your child will be in college, or they typically have resources where they can find contacts. We encourage families to talk with their doctors well ahead of time, so there’s no lapse in care.”
Stresses in college come in many forms: managing schoolwork, dealing with social pressures and even battling homesickness. Students may focus on ways to avoid the ‘Freshman 15’ weight gain, but often give little attention to mental health. Here are a few ways to help your teen manage common mental health concerns in college, like depression, anxiety and social worries.
Pick the Right School
Mental wellness starts with choosing an academic situation that feels the most comfortable for your teen. Do they want to stay close to home? Select a school in-state. Do they want a stronger sense of community? Select a smaller school that may feel less overwhelming. Living situations and school mental health resources should also be considered during the search process.
On-campus wellness resources aren’t just for physical health. If your child is seeing a counselor, therapist or psychiatrist before they go off to college, make sure you have connected them to a counselor on campus. Find out what to do if an emotional crisis comes up. Are there after-hours numbers to call for help? Talk to your child about handling feelings of isolation or homesickness – both very common for freshman and transfer students.
“Parents should foster independence in their children, but a child stills needs the parent, whether it’s for advice, a listening ear or support with something,” says Dr. Peterson. “I encourage parents to let their child approach them with updates and not go through a ‘checklist’ of questions as to how things are going or what things have been tough on them. That can be a set-up for problems.”
Dr. Peterson suggests parents and children establish mutually agreeable guidelines when and how to check in, like via phone, text or email.
Watch for Signs
“Parents should always be aware of signals that maybe something isn’t quite right with their child,” says Dr. Peterson. “Something as simple as a change in mood or not returning calls or texts could signal that there is a problem. If this is happening, parents should talk to the child and possibly reach out to a resident advisor in the dorm or student health center where counselors are available.”