If your child is planning on going back to college after previously dropping out, you may be both delighted and apprehensive. A degree could increase your child’s chances of landing a stable, satisfying career. At the same time, you worry that they might repeat the same mistakes or encounter the same obstacles that caused them to drop out in the first place.
During our work as therapists for young adults, we’ve helped many young people successfully transition back to school. Dropping out of university and starting again is never easy, but well-prepared students tend to struggle less. Here are five common challenges returning students face and our advice for helping your child overcome them:
1. Other people’s doubts and judgments
Many students who drop out of college do so under less-than-ideal circumstances. If your child withdrew because of mental health reasons, they may also wonder how to explain their absence to teachers and classmates when they return.
To avoid awkward conversations, role-play with your emerging adult to help them brainstorm how they will answer tough questions from staff or students. It may also help your child to know how common their situation is. Four out of ten first-year college students never graduate, so dropping out is extremely common.[i] Going back to college after dropping out is less common; only the bravest and most determined students do it. Never let your emerging adult forget how proud of them you are for restarting college.
2. The loss of familiar support systems
Starting college will separate your child from some of the support systems they previously relied on, including their family, therapist, and childhood friends. Unless you find ways to reconnect them with a solid support system, your emerging adult may not have the help and reassurance they will need to keep moving forward.
Whenever possible, facilitate continued access to familiar resources. Look into virtual therapy sessions with your emerging adult’s therapist, make yourself available for frequent phone calls, and encourage your child to stay in touch with old friends. At the same time, find new sources of support for them at school, including counselors and disability resource advisors. Set up these relationships and any accommodations as early as possible so your emerging adult feels fully supported when restarting college.
It is also important to teach your child self-advocacy skills. Despite laws against mental health discrimination in universities, your child may encounter people who question their readiness for school or their right to accommodations. By teaching them how to communicate their needs, you can empower your child to ask for help when they need it.
3. Time pressure
If your child dropped out mid-semester, they might need to retake some classes. The prospect of having to do those assignments all over again may be anxiety-inducing for your child, especially if they weren’t on great terms with their professor. The overall delay caused by their gap year(s) may also weigh on their mind, tempting them to take on a heavy course load.
Remind your child that school is a marathon, not a sprint. Many people don’t get their degrees until mid-life or later, and those degrees are no less valid or valuable. Encourage your child to return to school part-time, at least at first. It is best to ease them back into school and set them up for success. Once they’re feeling settled in and a bit more confident, they might consider adding to their credit load in the future.
4. Too much change too quickly
The routine your child enjoyed during their gap year(s) will likely be very different than their new school routine. They’ll be operating on a different schedule in a different environment. Instead of friends and family members, they’ll be surrounded by strangers. Even their diet may change if they’re planning to rely on campus-provided fare.
These sudden changes may be overwhelming to your child, especially if they are autistic, have ADHD, or have sensory sensitivities. To help your child make this transition, encourage them to adjust their schedule in the weeks or months before school starts so they can get used to it. If they’re already used to getting up, eating, and showing at a specific time, the first day of school will go more smoothly.
You can also take steps to help them retain some elements of their past environment. If you have a picky eater, locate a grocery store that carries their favorite items and have them stock up a mini-fridge. If your child is sensitive to loud noises or bright lights, make sure they have quality noise-blocking headphones for study time and an eye mask for sleep. If possible, you might also consider having them move to their new dorm room or apartment early, so they have time to adjust before classes begin.
5. Low self-confidence
The circumstances that initially led your child to drop out probably degraded their confidence as a student. They may also worry that the same problems that happened last time may reoccur.
To prevent your child’s troubled past from affecting their future, view past “failures” as learning opportunities. Talk with your child about what went wrong last time and ask them what new tools and skills they can use this time. For example, your anxious child may have learned emotional regulation techniques from a therapist that they can use to prevent the panic attacks that they struggled with as a freshman. Whatever your child is worried about happening, help them create a game plan for how to handle it.
Above all else, foster self-compassion in your child. Accept them for who they are and let them know it is okay to make mistakes. If they reenter school expecting that there will be both good days and bad ones, they’ll be less likely to beat themselves up when times get tough.
Get Support for Your College Student
If you have a child going back to college after dropping out, getting them support from a therapist for young adults can mean the difference between smooth sailing or crashing and burning. Here at LA Concierge Psychologist, we are especially adept at support emerging adults who struggle with “failure to launch”. Book a free 20 minute consultation call with Dr. Crystal Lee or Dr. Jenifer Goldman to see how they can help.