My son seems very unhappy at university

My 19-year-old son started university this year and he appears very unhappy there. He does not seem to be engaging well with the course material and may not be getting on particularly well with the class. He was much happier in school even during the Leaving Cert and has been happy and active in sport all his life to date.
I’ve tried to ask him what is making him seem so down and he just says he does not want to talk about it. He is staying out late which is normal enough for a college student. I don’t want to hassle him but feel quite worried and sad for him.
He’s the youngest of three, and his older brother and sister have done well in college but we have never compared one to the other. I would be grateful for your advice on what way to approach him. Am I worrying too much as his mother or is there something I can do?
Making the move from school to college or university is a big transition in the life of young people. Whereas school life can be relatively prescribed within the Leaving Cert treadmill, going to college brings a lot more independence, freedom and responsibility. For some, this transition can be a challenge, as they might question their college course, find the self-directed nature of the study hard to manage or struggle to find their niche within college life. At your son’s age it is normal for young people to question course choices and to wonder what they should be doing with their lives, and so on.

Parenting a young adult
Just because your child becomes an adult at 18 does not mean you stop being a parent altogether, but your parenting role does change. For most young adults, the family home remains their “emotional” home where they return for support and security, and they continue to benefit from the guidance and support of their parents (even if they are living away).

Being a parent of a young adult is about giving them space and recognising their privacy while being there for them when they need you. You are no longer making decisions for them but you can be there for them as a good coach or support when they are making their decisions.

A delicate balance
It is hard to see an adult child we care about upset or troubled about some issue. However, we have to respect their privacy if they don’t want to talk about it. As a parent you are treading a delicate balance of letting them know you care/are there to support them and letting them decide when they want to talk/work things out for themselves.
A good strategy is to say you care and you are there to talk if he needs to, but then back off and not expect him to talk immediately. In my experience, young people choose to talk in their own time and come back when they are ready.

Tune into why he does not want to talk
It is useful to take a moment to reflect about what might be making it hard for him to talk. Is he a private person or does he generally find it hard to put his feelings into words? Does he not want to face the issue or does he want to forget about his troubles at home? Or is it a private issue (such as relationship trouble) that he does not want to confide in his mother about?
Is he worried about worrying you? Was it simply a bad time when you spoke and he will bring it up again? Having a sense of where he is coming from will help you decide how best to help him.

Stay connected in other ways
Sometimes the best approach is to focus on chatting generally with him when he is at home with you. Focus on talking about general news and other enjoyable things when you have the chance to talk to him
For example, if you know he is playing/ interested in a sport, you can ask about how this is going or join him in some way around this. If he is open, you could go along to one of his matches. This keeps the channels of communication open between you and gives him space to talk when he is ready. It can also help to show you care in tangible ways such as making his favourite meal or doing something else that lets him know that you know he is going through a hard time and that you are there for him.

Ask someone else to have a word with him
You could also mention your concerns to other family members such as his father or one of his siblings with whom he might have a good relationship. They might have an idea about what is going on with him and may be able to reach out to him in a constructive way. For example, they might be able to raise the subject directly with him or approach him in an indirect way to support him without making a big deal about it. There are usually good support services in college that your son could be directed towards if he is open to this, such as counselling services or advice services about the correct course choice or even study skills groups if this is the issue.

Take a long-term approach
Lots of young people go through hard times in college but these are often periods of great growth and learning for them. As a parent it is important to take a long-term approach by being there to support, but by also realising that these are challenges the young person has to work through largely by themselves to get to the other side.

John Sharry, Irish Times Newspaper, November 2015. John writes in the Irish Times Health+ every Tuesday.