7 ways to support college students during finals

How parents can be supportive of their college student while they study for finals — even from afar.
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By Esta Pratt-Kielley

Testing time is usually stressful for students, from elementary school through the college years. But if your student is in their first year of college, end-of-semester finals can be a big adjustment. While it ultimately is up to your adult child to manage their time and handle their stress, you can be supportive to them while they work hard in the last few weeks of the semester—even from afar.

Remind your student of resources on campus

A simple way to be supportive during finals is to look to all of the resources available on campus. “Parents can be aware of what resources are available by college, and then can remind student of those resources,” says Wendy Rock, assistant professor of counseling at Southeastern Louisiana University and a former high school counselor. Many schools have writing centers, tutoring services, and great library resources. You can stay up-to-date on what your young adult’s school has to offer through information given at orientation, parent newsletters, or simply following up on the school website.

Parent and Family programs can be a great support as well, with calendars that break down resources and campus events. Stephanie Benson-Gonzales, assistant director of parent relations and communications at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, says to remind students of fun things that are happening on campus, too. “Campus resources don’t end with academics. We have a program called ‘dogs on call’—most campuses offer fun things like that,” Benson-Gonzales says. “And during finals there are usually a lot of events offering free food or other fun things going on—remember to tap into that.” If your student is calling you and telling you how stressed they are, not only can you be supportive, but you can be prepared to give them some tangible tips and resources they can tap into. An extra reminder can go a long way when your young adult has a million other things on their mind.

Communicate that you care - but not too much

A little moral support is always a good thing, but especially during finals. Whether it’s talking on the phone, sending letters, or sending care packages, your student will appreciate knowing that you are thinking of them. “I think it’s important to keep the positive messaging going,” says Brian L. Watkins, director of parent and family affairs at the University of Maryland. “Parents could simply say, ’Good luck on exams today, I believe in you, you can do this. We’re thinking about you,’ whether that’s a phone call, text, or snail mail. I think it’s always nice to get actual mail. That’s a really nice way to just acknowledge that stressful period with some kind gestures.”

But don’t overdo it. If your student doesn’t have time to talk on the phone, or doesn’t respond right away to a text, remember that they are busy and give them some space. “If you regularly communicate with your students and if your student regularly communicates with you, and then that frequency changes all of the sudden [during finals time], it doesn’t necessarily mean that something is wrong, it could just mean they are really busy,” Watkins says. Parents, be supportive, but don’t add additional stressors on your student at this time by getting upset or hurt if they don’t call you back.

Send a care package

A great way to show you care, while also giving your young adult some space, is to send a care package. Watkins says some schools will offer “final exam kits,” which is essentially a gift basket full of goodies that parents can purchase and send to students. But even if families do not purchase a pre-made basket, care packages are a great way to show support from afar. Send some of their favorite snacks, coffee, a stuffed animal, granola bars, extra pens; anything that they like or may be useful during the stressful time. They will appreciate it, even if they don’t tell you right away!

Highlight the benefits of sleep

Sometimes we forget the important basics of staying healthy during time of high stress. When studying for finals, students often will neglect sleep and pull all-nighters. While you can no longer enforce a bedtime for your young adult, you can talk about sleep and its benefits. For example, sleep has a great impact on academic success. CEO of Sleep for Success and Author Dr. James Maas says even one more hour of sleep a night can make a huge difference in achievement, something that many students are striving for during testing time. “Even getting a couple hours of sleep is better than no sleep at all,” Benson-Gonzales says. While it’s sometimes difficult to stay in a routine during finals time, it is important that students try.

Encourage stress relief strategies

Sometimes health falls by the wayside when stress increases, so it is helpful if students plan ahead to make the day-of less stressful. “We make a general suggestion; make a plan to reduce stress. Maybe they look at the location of a test ahead of time or plan meals for testing day, that kind of thing,” Benson-Gonzales says. Parents can offer some suggestions and share experiences about how they planned to reduce stress during busy times or important deadlines. Staying healthy also means having time to relax. “Students need to allow their brain time to process materials,” Benson-Gonzales says. “Celebrate little successes like making it through a short-term goal or finishing reading a chapter in a book for class.”

Pay attention to their mental health

Mental health is a topic of concern for many parents and families during this time of year. Keep in mind that this time is naturally stressful for most students and you may see changes because of this, and that in itself is not a reason to be alarmed. "I think sudden changes in mood or behavior are always things to be looking out for, if there’s a sudden change of things they’re interested in, or if they’ve been really passionate about something for a really long time, but suddenly don’t want anything to do with it,” Watkins says. “This doesn’t mean they are depressed, but it’s a change in pattern or behavior that may be worth a parent or family member saying, ‘Hey, what’s going on?’” Professional School Counselor Dr. Shari Sevier says talking about mental health with young adults is essential. “Be a good sounding board, you know your children best,” Sevier says. “If you hear them completely stressed out, it’s important to talk to them about mental health.”

Campus health centers can be an excellent resource, especially for students who may need a little extra support during this time. “Many university health services offer drop-in sessions, or ’let’s talk‘ sessions for students, some who are just stressed out and need some support,” Benson-Gonzales says. Some students may just feel completely overwhelmed, but that’s okay and completely normal, Benson-Gonzales says. “Ask them if they have people in their class that they can study with. What are office hours of [their] professor? Do they have review sessions?’ You can ask questions without telling them to do this or do that,” Sevier says. “If they are freaking out, ask, ‘What are you going to do about this?’ Get them to think about the plans. You want to empower them, not enable them.” Ultimately, experts agree that parents know their kid best. “Parents can help detect early warning signs,” Benson-Gonzales says. “If something seems off, point to professionals.”

A little stress can be good

Remember, not all stress is bad stress. Sometimes, it can be extremely motivating. According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), stress can cause survival functions in the body, such as a quickening pulse, faster breathing, muscles tensing, and the brain using more oxygen and increasing activity. In some situations, these functions can be life-saving. Stress can help provide a sense of urgency to meet important deadlines at work, when preparing for an interview, or when studying for a big test. Ultimately, you know your kid best and if you see worrying signs, then it may be time to get some help. But if they are stressed about doing well and getting good grades on their final exams, then they may just be like every other college student.