They’re anxious about debt, worried about job security—and all this before they so much as declare a major. They’re first year college students, and according to a recent survey conducted by UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute (HERI), their emotional health is at a quarter century low.

The American Freshman: A Snapshot in Stress

HERI’s “The American Freshman: National Norms Fall 2010” is in the 25th year of its survey of over 200,000 incoming students at four-year institutions across the U.S. on subjects ranging from public policy to personal assessment. Of the undergrads polled, a mere 52% rated their emotional health as above average; this represents a 3% decrease in the past year alone and a massive 12% drop from 1985, the year that freshmen were first asked to evaluate their well-being. Interestingly, female students were far more likely than their male counterparts to report sub-par emotional health, representing a widening gender gap when it comes to how students deal with stress.

The numbers are alarming—but given similar emotional health trends in the American workforce, the fact that children’s emotional health seems to mimic that of their parents hardly comes as a surprise. Also unsurprising is what many researchers pinpoint as one of the primary causes for this record-level stress: financial worries. HERI Director Sylvia Hurtado said in a recent press release that the growing price tag associated with higher ed represented a “significant barrier to college access for today’s students.”

How students pay for college is a continuing challenge, according to survey results. The percentage of students in 2010 receiving aid from scholarships and grants rose, and over half of the students polled said that student loans helped to offset their college costs; many of those same students also reported mounting unemployment among their parents. Predictably, this same group of undergrads cited augmented earning power as a key advantage of post-secondary education, however costly (and stressful) it might seem to them now.

Helping Your Child Identify and Cope

When does the stress begin? Before college, according to survey results—almost 30% of students polled indicated that they felt overwhelmed by their senior year of high school. For parents who want to get a jump start on helping their older teens manage stress, the message is clear: start early.

“Listen, listen, listen,” advises child and family mental health counselor Gary Unruh. Not all stress is bad—a certain amount of stress is necessary and even healthy in helping children to develop self-assurance and the ability to cope with day-to-day adult demands—but when it affects kids’ sleeping patterns or eating habits, stress is no longer just an annoyance but a potential health issue. Unruh gives five potential warning signs to recognize long-term and/or abnormal stress in a child:

  • The child is more isolated from friends and family.
  • The child is more irritable, argumentative or cranky.
  • The child is more anxious, which may manifest itself in repeated comments, sleep disturbances, etc.
  • The child is making more sad or negative comments than happy over a prolonged period of time.
  • The child eats significantly more or less than usual.

The key to dealing with adolescent stress, Unruh suggests, is offering validation before criticism and emphasizing joint problem solving. “Start where your child is,” Unruh says, “not where you are.” He advises working on child-directed problem-solving skills that include a step-by-step process from identifying the potential stressor through evaluating a solution.

For specific college funding concerns, discuss with older teens an action plan for paying back student loans or covering costs—often, a solid financial plan can help to alleviate their anxiety. It’s important also, Unruh notes, to discuss what he calls “the normalcy of the loan process” with teens who may find the world of adult financial strategy foreign and intimidating.

While professional counseling may be warranted for stress that lasts more than a month, parents can play a big role in helping their kids assuage the effects of stress before it ever comes to that. Play, family time, relaxation, exercise—all these things, Unruh says, are important to maintaining a healthy emotional life. Parents can offer support by ensuring that their kids find an age-appropriate equilibrium for their kids that encompasses these healthy outlets.

A Silver Lining?

Fortunately, the 2010 study findings were not necessarily all gloom and doom. Researchers also noted a record increase in the number of students who ranked both their academic ability and their drive to succeed as being above average—factors that many hope will help them to rise above the stress that seems to complicate their lives now.