Freshers at the university of life

When their children become students, how much do parents need to know about their welfare and how much responsibility should they take?
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Since Sarah Napuk's suicide, attention has focused on the extraordinary pressures that Oxford and other universities place on young people. Sarah, a brilliant 22-year-old history student, hanged herself in April, fearing she would not get the First in this summer's Finals which everyone expected. During this week's inquest, her parents issued a health warning: "Don't send your children to Oxford, it is not safe."

But Sarah's death raises a still more fundamental question. How should parents help their children when they are released from a protective home life into a highly competitive world that can be emotionally brutal? This issue is not often raised. After all, at 18, young people are physically adult, entitled to vote and start a family. And after years of coping with the likes of Kevin, Harry Enfield's lank-haired, muttering slob, many parents are relieved that at last the job is done and they can let their offspring get on with their own lives. The kids are dumped at the halls of residence and parents try to clear up the empty nest.

Many assume that the years of responsible parenting are now over. But it is just such an assumption that often leads to bad mistakes. "Parents may delay the decision to divorce until the last sibling leaves home," says Mark Phippen, former chair of the Association for Student Counselling. "But this can be very disturbing for a young person who has just left home. Grappling with study deadlines, they can find it hard to concentrate when something major is going on at home. It is very important for a young person to feel that they still have a home, but some parents move house at this time. If a student no longer has a room to go back to, it can be quite significant."

More generally, psychologists now recognise that, at 18, emotional maturity may still be a decade away at a time when you need a clear head for university and breaking into work. As the BBC drama This Life demonstrates, even the mid-20s can be rocky. Yet the characters, reflecting contemporary culture, largely sink or swim alone, depending on their peer group, with little back-up from older and perhaps wiser counsel.

Young adults are more dependent these days than a generation ago, according to Elizabeth Hartley-Brewer, author of Positive Parenting - Raising Children With Self-Esteem. "Increasingly parents feel that because they were very independent at 20, their children should feel the same way. But they don't. Their kids are growing up in a different way. They don't have the same sense of purpose as we did. There are more uncertainties. When I went to university in the Sixties, I knew there would be a job. I had had a lot of independence in my teens and I felt very comfortable going away. Today's adolescents don't get the same freedoms and grow up with a greater sense of dependence. They are far less certain about the future. Parents may cast them off when they are not ready."

And the world they will encounter can be much less supportive than in the past. Set aside, for a moment, the competitive pressures of university. The collapse of old-style apprenticeships in Britain, where employers acted almost in loco parentis, has cut away one secure way for young people to find their feet. The difficulty of finding jobs and holding on to them makes work very competitive and few older people have the time or energy to guide young hopefuls. New arrivals are often expected to make the grade immediately or get out. The pressures mean, for example, as The Independent's Hamish McRae commented earlier this week, that it is becoming more and more difficult to tempt young people into top careers.

"Many young people are also having less security in their personal relationships," says Elizabeth Hartley-Brewer. "Young people don't settle down as readily or easily as they used to, so they often don't have that rock when life becomes difficult."

Jeanne Le Bars, founder of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Parenting, argues that specialists have failed to recognise the continuing need for parental-style guidance for those aged between 18 and 26 or 27. "It is a period of great change and sometimes great disappointment. University, no matter how good it is, never turns out quite like you hoped. And those kids who don't go to university are trying to establish an identity in a hard marketplace. It is a time of extraordinary self-doubt."

And there are not many places to go to explore that doubt. At universities, for example, rapid expansion means staff have less time for individual problems, according to Mark Phippen. Meanwhile, the modular system of education, involving frequent changes in the make-up of study groups, makes it harder to maintain useful friendships. University counselling services have grown in availability over the past decade, but they remain remote from the average student, a crisis intervention service rather than an everyday support. Generally, says Dr John Coleman, director of the Trust for the Study of Adolescence, there is, despite the explosion in counselling and psychotherapeutic services, a shortage of experts trained to deal with young adults.

The pressures Sarah Napuk faced as a 22-year-old were enormous - and they will only be raised by the Government's decision this week to charge tuition fees for students from better-off families. Sarah's mother Angela recalls her writing a major essay a week in a crammed eight-week term at a time when a friend at Birmingham was expected to complete four essays in a 12-week term. But worst of all is an exam system, unreformed despite decades of criticism, which tests three years of work in one gruelling set of final exams. It is no longer suitable, says Mrs Napuk, for the hothouse of overachievers that Oxford has become, where students are no longer drawn exclusively from public schools where they have become secure and familiar within the Oxbridge culture.

"The argument," says Mrs Napuk, "is that if you can cope with Oxford you can cope with anything. But what if you can't cope? I have a dead daughter. She has nothing to cope with now. The establishment says most people manage. But that is not good enough. Everyone should manage."

Jeanne Le Bars argues that much more dialogue is needed between universities and parents. "We pay, if we can, to support them through those years. But we have very few rights. We can't question what universities are doing in the way we can question schools." Angela Napuk says the university never got in touch about Sarah. "As parents, we spent our time bringing out qualities of caring, honouring and dignifying life and Sarah went into an atmosphere where these things are not valued."

So what should parents do? Elizabeth Howell, counsellor with the London- based Parenting Connection, says it is vital for them not to be over- ambitious. "It is understandable that parents, having invested the best part of their adult lives in their children, should, as they leave home, be assessing whether it has all been worth it. But if a young person does not feel valued, regardless of what they do, then they will bear the brunt of their own expectations and of their parents'. This sort of pressure can have dramatic outcomes."

Jeanne Le Bars, whose 29-year-old son, Barnaby, studied music at Cambridge and whose youngest, Ben, 20, is at Sussex University, stresses the importance of keeping home stable. "If you want a divorce then try to wait until they are in their second or third deep relationship. Always keep a room for them. They can regress for while. If you can, don't move. If the base they are trying to leave moves, they will find it more difficult to leave."

Staying in touch is essential, she says. "There have been a couple of occasions when emotional pressures have been very heavy. By keeping in touch regularly, even when they didn't ring, it was possible to catch them when they were very vulnerable. If you keep the channels open, you may just catch them at a vital moment, when it's too much to say, `Mum, I'm feeling really shit,' because when you're 25, you can't do it."n

Further reading from Virgin Net

The Samaritans: Exploring the Taboo taboo.html

Suicide is the second most common cause of death amongst young people, and attempted suicides by young men have more than doubled since 1980. Why?

Suicide FAQ questions.html

The Internet is famous for its lists of Frequently Asked Questions, but this is one of the most important. How would I know if someone I care about was contemplating suicide? How does it affect friends and family? Doesn't talking about suicide encourage it?

Suicide: A Teacher's Experience depteacher.html

When a student commits suicide, the family is usually counselled. But the potentially traumatic effect on the student's teacher is often overlooked.

American Foundation for Suicide Prevention

The Foundation's research archive includes articles on Familial Factors in Suicide and Suicidal Behaviour, College Student Suicide, and Television and Teenage Suicide.

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