Group Psychotherapy Column

My First Group: Tevya Zukor reflects on the role that groups, especially families, play in people’s lives.
By Tevya Zukor, PhD

Tevya Zukor As summer is in full swing, those of us in higher education start to prepare for the upcoming academic year. In just a few short weeks, thousands of students across the country will be taking their first steps on the hallowed grounds of their campuses that will mark the unofficial graduation to adulthood.

Wellness, or health of body and mind, is integral to a successful academic career. In order to make the most of a college education — and sometimes even to make it to class — students might need help. For years, mental health issues among college students have been growing. According to a 2018 report by the Association for University and College Counseling Center Directors, anxiety is the predominant concern for students, followed by depression and personal relationship concerns. The good news is that increasingly, college students are seeking help for their issues; the challenging news is that stressors associated with the college years appear to be here to stay.

While it is important to consider the momentous transformation that people experience while in college, it is also a powerful time for reflection. The life of a college student is filled with many groups — the academic class, the community in the residence hall or the cohort of peers who identify with the same interests or major. These are just some of the many groups that we will consider as a part of our life experience through the college journey. However, during this transitional time, it is also important to remember how it all began.

One of the most important supports, both now and in the future, will remain the influence and care that we receive from our parents. Although part of the developmental tasks of college is to learn to appropriately individuate from home and learn to become self-realized adults, we cannot do so in a vacuum. We become who we are in the context of the world in which we live. Parents often feel that when their child leaves for college, their children are no longer as connected to home and are removed from the influences of parents. I cannot disagree more strongly.

In infancy, our initial interactions with family set the dynamics and expectations that we have for all other group experiences in the future. If one subscribes to the epistemological theory of Tabula Rasa, then everything we have ever learned about groups and social interactions can be traced to that very first group — our family. Instead of diminishing in importance, the lessons from that very first social experience is under a constant readjustment and refinement. It never goes away; it just continues to get improved and refined. Rather than family not being as prominent when students engage in college, I tend to think college is the culmination from all of our previous family experiences.

From a parent perspective, just as our children are growing through their college years, our relationships with our children will continue to evolve. It will not look the same as it did 10 years ago or even 10 months ago, but it will be no less as important and influential. Your child’s friends will change. They will move to new places. They will likely date and break up with different people before finding the best fit for them. In all of those circumstances, with all of these inevitable changes, the one constant will be the love of their chosen family.

During the tumultuous times ahead, remember that your support and understanding of your child may be one of the most important and lasting influences that they will ever have. It literally started at birth. As the academic semester begins and students take their nascent steps into adulthood, please remember to call and check-in with your child. Remind them that they are cared for and loved. Let them now that you want them to be successful, and even if they have a stumble or two, you want to be there to keep them on their feet and gently guiding them forward. You will always be their parent. While there is never a bad time to remind your child that you love them, it can be even more valuable during these transitional times in their life.