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Your college student still needs you

Six ways to guide your child after they leave the nest for higher learning

Your college student still needs you

With the college move-in date behind us, many parents are already worrying for their students’ wellbeing. But don’t fear. Student wellbeing activist David Magee gives some tips on staying in touch with your children and guiding them from afar.

College is widely credited as being a child’s first full step into adulthood. But when they walk out of their parents’ house, they enter a world full of unprecedented challenges and threats to their wellbeing. They may be fully grown, says student wellbeing activist David Magee, but they need their parents even after they leave the nest—especially during the college years.

“College-aged children are not equipped to handle the problems plaguing their generation on their own,” says Magee, author of the book Things Have Changed: What Every Parent (and Educator) Should Know About the Student Mental Health and Substance Misuse Crisis (Matt Holt, August 2023, ISBN: 978-1-6377439-6-6, $22.00) and award-winning book Dear William: A Father’s Memoir of Addiction, Recovery, Love, and Loss. “Between mental health disorders, substance misuse, body image issues, and a plethora of other challenges, they need your guidance more than ever. Staying connected during this time gives them the support they desperately need.”

Magee is no stranger to the dangers awaiting children at college, or in life in general. After losing his son William to an accidental drug overdose, and nearly losing another son, Hudson, to an overdose at a college frat party, he’s dedicated his life to giving students the tools they need to thrive and helping them find the joy they crave more than anything else. It’s also why he founded the William Magee Institute for Student Wellbeing at the University of Mississippi, which seeks to understand how best to prevent or break the cycle of unhealthy habits and addictions that plague so many college students, and the William Magee Center for AOD and Wellness Education.  

Below, Magee offers some tips for staying in touch—and in tune—with your children.


Tell the truth about the dangers of using drugs and alcohol. Make sure your child hears the truth about substance misuse and the problems it can cause from you, not from their friends, says Magee. Binge drinking, which plagues college campuses, can result in missed classes, depression, health issues, sleep loss, sexual assault, and much more. Drugs are just as harmful and can even be deadly. For example, when students take counterfeit pills, they risk overdosing from fentanyl, a highly addictive drug so deadly that even a “crumb” can kill them instantly. Encourage your children to stay away from these dangerous pills.  


Teach them to prioritize their (mental and physical) health. Every college student should develop a “toolbox” of habits, practices, and mindsets to help them maintain physical and mental health and create joy in their lives, says Magee. Remind them to prioritize sleep every night. They should go to bed at a reasonable hour and keep their phone shut off at night. Ensure that they get exercise every day as well. A 30-minute walk outside is easy and meditative, and can improve their mood and increase blood circulation. Finally, urge them to check their social media use. If they find themselves scrolling for hours each day, or experiencing anxiety or depression, it’s time to cut back.

READ MORE: USC quarterback Caleb Williams supports young adults' mental health


Keep open lines of communication. If your child is far away, call or FaceTime them for frequent catch-ups. Weekly phone calls establish you as one of their confidants, remind them that you are there and willing to listen, and show that they can come to you with problems.


“Ensure that your child feels safe enough to come to you no matter what. Keep the lines of communication open, and always, always assure your child that you love them and are here for them,” says Magee.


Encourage them to choose their friends wisely. One of the most important lessons of college—and life—is that you will take on the traits of those you surround yourself with. For example, if your child joins a fraternity that prioritizes drinking and partying, then their chances of sponging up those characteristics goes up astronomically.


“Your teen or young adult child might not realize that they are entering into a pressure cooker of threats when they leave for college,” says Magee. “And most of this pressure is going to come from other students. The wise saying, ‘Students get students on drugs, and students get students off drugs,’ comes into play here. Encourage your child to find people who will not pressure them into harming themselves through substance abuse. It’s worth holding out for genuine friends—even if it means being lonely for a little while.”


Skip the lectures and try listening instead. With college pressures pulling your child in a hundred different directions, be a source of support, not another problem, says Magee. For starters, don’t tell them how they should feel and don’t preach “at” them. Avoid comments like, “But you aced your exam; you should be grateful!” or, “You’ve got that big game coming up; you should be having fun!” Instead, listen to your child and validate their feelings. Try to understand things from their point of view. This will open the doors of communication and may even spark some difficult conversations, but it ultimately deepens their trust in you. Finally, ask your child plenty of open-ended questions and listen deeply to their answers. Their responses will surprise and delight you every time.


Read between the lines. (Pay attention to your intuition.) Chances are, you are more in tune with your child than you think, and you may pick up on the little subtleties that tell you when they are struggling or that something’s wrong. Pay attention to these feelings; they may be the lifeline you need to save them. One tip here is to listen for what they’re not saying—it may reveal more than you think. For example, if your child starts using language like, “I don’t like my roommates,” or, “I want to move out and get a fresh start,” they may be subtly crying out for help, and your conversations with them can help guide them to that recognition. Magee also points out that “anxiety” is often used as a catch-all term, especially when the person in question may be unsure of what is plaguing them—so take notice when and if your child uses this word.


Just because your child is in college doesn’t mean they are equipped to take on the full pressure of the world. You are still their parent, and when it comes to maintaining contact, the college years are more precious—and precarious—than any other time.

“If you can engage your children by listening and gently guiding them, you’ll be setting them up to thrive this semester—and throughout their lives,” concludes Magee. “Stay close, and you will rest easier knowing they are safe, growing into strong young adults, and making good decisions that will serve them well.”

David Magee is the best-selling author of Things Have Changed: What Every Parent (and Educator) Should Know About the Student Mental Health and Substance Misuse Crisis and Dear William: A Father’s Memoir of Addiction, Recovery, Love, and Loss—a Publisher’s Weekly bestseller, named a Best Book of the South, and featured on CBS Mornings—and other nonfiction books. A changemaker in student and family mental health and substance misuse, he’s a creator of the William Magee Institute for Student Wellbeing at the University of Mississippi and a frequent K–12 and university educational and motivational speaker, helping students and parents find and keep their joy. Learn more at

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