For many young adults, the transition through college graduation into “real life” can be difficult. The completion of a stage marked by personal growth, friendship, accomplishment and independence is a jarring experience. Job searching can be daunting—riddled with rejection and uncertainty that can go on for many months. When a job is finally secured, it is likely to be entry level, which translates into days far less interesting than college classes and far more menial than the fantasy job of any college graduate. For many, graduation means moving back home, a less fun and possibly lonely existence after living surrounded by peers.
For many graduates, these difficult adjustments can trigger symptoms of depression, which typically begins to show itself during adolescence and young adulthood. It is not surprising that some college graduates become depressed for the first time or re-experience depression when facing a period of uncertainty and vast responsibility.
The difficulty as parents of children struggling with post-college emotional distress is navigating the equally important approaches of sympathy and tough love. While a sympathetic and patient path might feel good to a child, it can result in self-pity and the whim to give up. Meanwhile, leading with the “buck up and get it done” kind of tough love may damage a fragile ego. This challenging moment in parenting requires a message that is calibrated carefully so as to not damage the parent-child relationship.
One must assess whether a child is going through a normal adjustment or something more serious, as depression (and its ally, anxiety) will very often get worse without appropriate intervention. A normally adjusting young adult might express frustrations, and even sadness, but will continue to get out of bed every morning with a plan, have a fairly productive day, connect with friends and bounce back when things aren’t going as planned. One that may be depressed might sleep through a good part of the day or spend it on the couch, have a sad, withdrawn or even angry mood, show little interest in socializing and do little to submit job applications in order to move toward the next stage of life. Parents with a gut feeling that their child isn’t emotionally okay are almost always correct—don’t ignore your gut!
When graduates don’t have a job, productivity is an excellent antidote to depression. Help create structure by encouraging a daily routine including job searching, physical activity and chores. This should not be a fight, but it is important to have clear expectations (make dinner, pick up the cleaning, go to a spinning class or golf lesson). This structure also provides opportunities to boost their ego (“the dinner you made is delicious”) and spend time with them (“having you next to me in hot yoga helped me push a bit harder, thanks for coming”).
Parents expect their child to have the ability to complete the tasks necessary to move on in life, but many graduates don’t know how, or are too overwhelmed or too depressed to have the motivation to apply for jobs or shop for interview clothes. Recognize that parenting an even slightly depressed graduate can be more hands-on than one might have anticipated. Approach this life-stage with patience (“let’s work on that resume together”), rather than exasperation (“do you really not know how to write a resume by now?!”). This will be more productive, keep one’s relationship with a child intact and help them take steps toward success. A parent may need to be gently insistent that these tasks get completed (“you and I are going to spend two hours on Saturday working on job applications”) while still being patient.