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First year of college can strain emotions

Teens have to learn to handle a lot of things for themselves, including new emotions. Some may experience depression for the first time.

During my second year in college, news spread quickly and quietly that a brilliant and socially odd student at our small school had arrived home during winter break _ his freshman year _ and jumped from his family's apartment building.

Today there are books on teenagers and depression, and universities offer walk-in counseling services and hot lines for anxious and depressed kids.

Still, teenagers are as vulnerable as they always were, and we still read about or know someone who dropped out of college or life because of an emotional break.

"This is the period in life when depression first emerges," said Myrna Weissman, a professor of psychiatry and epidemiology at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons in Manhattan.

Though most freshmen who attend college away from home will make it through the first few vulnerable months working through the separation from family and friends, some will experience a severe depression that will require treatment.

The good news is that parents can help _ even from far away. One of the first jobs in preparing your children for college is to help them realize that there will be many different emotions, and that is normal. There will be the ecstasy of freedom, the fear of failure, the panic of scheduling and organizing time efficiently, the satisfaction of fitting in.

Richard Gallagher, director of the Parenting Institute at New York University's Child Study Center, said that teenagers who have never been away from home, or whose time has been tightly managed by parents, may have problems adjusting to college life. Easing up on house rules during the summer months has helped many parents and their kids get ready for college.

"They will have to set their own schedule and organize their own time," said Gallagher. "It helps when parents give them that freedom before they go away."

Kids who are not good at managing their own schedule may have serious problems studying, and therefore their grades might suffer.

The first few weeks of the semester may be filled with frantic calls from your child, and this, too, is part of the process. Your child may even cry and beg to come home. The natural parental instinct is to book the next flight, but don't, said Manhattan psychologist Bonnie Maslin. A call to your child the next day will probably find a happier teenager.

But if negative emotions continue for weeks and new symptoms appear _ a change in the person's interests, excessive crying, sluggishness, irritability, tiredness, sleep and eating disturbances _ this suggests a serious depression.

Anne Marie Albano, also of NYU's parenting center, said anxiety disorders are even more common than depression and often go undiagnosed or untreated. Such anxiety causes its own physiological problems, including shaking, racing heart, sweating, loss of concentration, irritability and withdrawal. The symptoms, if left untreated, could lead to problems with peers and with grades. Albano said about 20 percent of the population experiences an anxiety disorder, and the prime years are ages 12 to 25.

Parents of teenagers who have already been in treatment should find a therapist near the college. The key to helping your child from afar is to stay connected and listen. Work out a plan with your child to speak Wednesdays and Sundays. This will provide an opportunity to hear about any problems and pick up clues about your child's mood.

Remember that a vulnerable person can overcome the normal sadness of leaving home with a plan. Remind your child of your continued support and love. Don't turn his or her bedroom into a den or guest room. Plan special family get-togethers during school holidays so your child has something to look forward to.

Janet Wollersheim, professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Montana, said the expectation that college will be filled with the ups of life and none of the downs may also put a vulnerable kid over the edge. "Don't paint an overly rosy picture of college life," Wollersheim said. "College is life. They must learn to cope with the ups and the downs."

Parents who are concerned about their child's mood and behavior can contact the counseling office at the school. Doctors and therapists there are trained in adolescent depression and anxiety disorders and can figure out what would be best for your child's treatment.

At Boston University, Craig Mack, director of student orientation, provides parents and students with a two-day crash course on college life. Parents and kids have their separate orientations, where the adults simulate phone calls with their kids and learn how to handle a stress-filled call. The school also offers courses on time management, relationships and healthy behavior.

Maslin added that this new period in the family's life is a transition for everyone, and respect for the process helps smooth the ride.

"Parents need to be aware of their own level of anxiety and how this affects their child," she says. "Everybody's trajectory is different," Maslin said. "Have faith in your child and listen."