Why Are Today’s College Students So Emotionally Fragile?

This article by Diane Dreher, Ph.D, reveals the authentic reality which many students face daily. Times have changed and Colleges with them.

“The college years have traditionally been a time for young people to be challenged by new ideas, learn to think critically, and assume greater responsibility for their lives, as they assume their roles as adult citizens. Unfortunately, the past few years have witnessed high levels of emotional dependency, anxiety, anddepression among American college students.

Recent books have identified one reason for these problems: psychological damage caused by overcontrolling parents. Middle-school teacher Jessica Lahey and Julie Lythcott-Haims, former dean of undergraduate advising at Stanford, describe the adverse effects of controlling parents.Psychology Today editor-at-large Hara Estroff Marano has written that such parenting “is likely the single largest factor contributing to the sharp rise in mental health problems among the young and the propensity of today’s kids to stay stuck in endlessadolescence” (2008, p. 3).

Overcontrolling parents love their children and want to protect them from what they see as an increasingly dangerous world. So they frantically package them for success, protecting their children from failure while pressuring them to excel, doing their homework, making their decisions, and micromanaging their lives. Yet these parents may be depriving their children of essential brain development, sabotaging their ability to think for themselves and develop the verycognitive skills they need to succeed in life.

The college years coincide with a sensitive period of brain development (Casey, Jones, & Hare, 2008). From the late teens to the early twenties, our brains develop their adult connections. Active neural pathways are strengthened while those unused are pruned away. A high degree of personal control activates the prefrontal cortex, (Shapiro et al, 1995), while low personal control activates the subcortical limbic areas, leading to heightened anxiety and increases in cortisol levels (Mineka, Gunnar, & Champoux, 1986; Sapolsky, 1989). High cortisol levels impair the prefrontal cortex and hippocampus, compromising neuronal networks essential for motivation, focused attention, workingmemory, response regulation, behavioral flexibility, and goal-directed learning (Arnsten, 2009; Cerqueira et al., 2007; Numan, 1978).

Students raised by overcontrolling parents have difficulty dealing with the challenges of college life because they’ve been denied the opportunity to develop age-appropriate cognitive function. Insecure, confused, and emotionally fragile, they experience high anxiety and chronic stress, which further weakens their cognitive ability. As research in my lab has shown, they are deficient inoptimism and hope—the ability to set goals, make plans, and follow through (Dreher, Feldman, & Numan, 2014). They experience greater distress and adjustment difficulties, putting overwhelming demands on college counseling centers. And their emotional immaturity is a major cause for concern–not only for their future health and well-being but for the future of this country.

How can we reverse this unhealthy trend? By allowing our children to learn, supporting their brain development with age-appropriate agency and autonomy.”



Co-Founder/ Co- CEO

IRIANS- The Neuroscience Institute


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