Talking With Your Student About Health & Well-Being

Tips for parents & family members

As a parent or family member, you play a vital role in helping your college student make intentional and safer decisions that impact their health and well-being

Studies show that parents and families often underestimate the influence they have on their students while they're at college. Know that your guidance and support still matter to your student, and it is never too late to start a conversation with them.

See tips and information about talking with your student, below:

Tips for better communication

We recognize not all families are the same and have written this section to reach a wide audience across different communities. The following evidence-based strategies can be personalized based on what you think will work best with your student.

  • Be open – College is a time to try new things and learn about life. Wherever the conversation goes, be open-minded and try to ask thought-provoking questions that are supportive and non-judgmental so your student can think through what they might say or do in different situations.
  • Listen – Let your student speak without interruption and leave space for them to think before responding. Paraphrasing or repeating back what you heard demonstrates that you are listening and trying to understand their perspectives, thoughts, and feelings.
  • Use welcoming body language – Remember that non-verbal communication (e.g., nodding, leaning forward, eye contact) sends a message that your student has your full attention and that you care about them and the conversation.
  • Remember that conflict is normal – Each of you is coming to the conversation with a unique perspective that has been shaped by your past experiences, beliefs, and values. Realize that conflict is normal and sometimes inevitable. Conflict is an opportunity to learn more about each other’s attitudes and reasoning behind their behaviors. When in doubt, share the reasoning behind your perspective and ask a question or invite your student to tell you more about theirs.
  • Promote problem-solving skills – Help your student think about ways to approach a problem and weigh the pros and cons of possible solutions. Encourage them to look at challenges, disappointments, and even failures as part of life and an opportunity for growth. Visit our Building Resilience page for more ideas. 

Starting the conversation 

Below are some examples of nonjudgmental ways to invite your student to talk with you about their health and well-being. The goal is to create a space where your student feels they can trust you and that you trust them.  

You can say something like this:

“I am proud of everything you have accomplished and am excited to see you enter this next chapter of your life. As you already know, college is different than high school. I want to make sure you are prepared to deal with stress in a healthy way as you take on new responsibilities.”

“Even though we will be in separate places, remember that I am always here for you and am one phone call or text away.”

During the conversation 

Below are relevant topics you might bring up in your conversation:

  • Connection and belonging: “What qualities do you need or want in your relationships, including any groups you might join or be a part of?”
  • Housing and roommates: “What do you need to feel comfortable and safe where you live? What conversations have you had with your roommates about boundaries?”
  • Career and academic goals: “What do you want to get out of college after you graduate? What might get in the way of that?”
  • Alcohol and other drugs: “You might already know about what goes on out there and maybe already have your own experiences with alcohol. It would mean a lot to me if we talked about this, even if it is just so I can learn how things have changed since I was your age.”
  • Sleep: “What has your sleep schedule looked like? Do you feel rested?”
  • Intimate / romantic / sexual relationships: “Remember, healthy relationships bring out the best in you and make you feel good about yourself.”

Continuing the conversation 

There are many ways to maintain open communication with your student during the year. If possible, take advantage of the times of year when you and your student can have in-person conversations, such as family weekend trips, hometown visits, and longer academic breaks. While they are away from home, schedule phone calls so that you and your student can talk without distractions. And remember, student life goes beyond the classroom, so your student might also be involved with organizations, clubs, and groups on campus that are making them busy.

You can say something like this:

“I want to check in about how things have been going since we last spoke. What was the highlight of your week?”

“What has been going well? What has not been going well?”

“Is there anything I can do to better support you while you are away at school?”

“How are you doing, really? Let us look through what campus resources you can take advantage of when you need extra help.” 

Other ways to support your student

  • Communicate regularly – Check in about your student’s mental health and stress levels, along with their eating and sleeping habits. If your student drinks alcohol, encourage them to do so safely, and make sure they know what to do in an alcohol emergency. (See Talking With Your Student About Alcohol & Other Drugs)
  • Advocate self-care – Refer to our Health Topics section for great tips to help your students be physically and emotionally healthy at Cornell. Give a prompt in the fall for your student to get a seasonal flu vaccination before flu season hits.
  • Encourage seeking medical / mental health care if they need it – If your student gets sick or injured, urge them to schedule a health care appointment and visit the Cornell Health Pharmacy for supplies. If they need support, encourage them to see a Cornell Health counselor, or take advantage of our Let’s Talk walk-in hours. (More resources for support are available on the university's Mental Health at Cornell website.) 
  • Balance respect for privacy and offers of support – Assure your student of your respect for their privacy as they begin to navigate their own health care. Your advice, support, and/or financial assistance will continue to be important to their wellbeing, so talk now about how you will balance the needs for privacy and  support before health issues arise.
  • Promote problem-solving skills – Help your student think about how to approach a problem and weigh the pros and cons of possible solutions. Remind them that facing challenges, disappointments, and even failures are part of life, and can actually help us grow. Visit our Building Resilience page for more ideas.
  • Set realistic expectations – Adjusting to university life is a difficult transition, which can be reflected in a student's academic performance. Not every "A" high school student will be an "A" college student – especially at Cornell. Be supportive and focus on your student's development rather than performance (as long as they’re meeting their basic academic requirements). Praise the effort, not the outcome. Remind them of their value beyond a test score.
  • Learn about symptoms of distress – Visit our Concern for Others page for signs that indicate your student may be having trouble coping, and needs help. 

If you're concerned about your student

Non-urgent concerns:

Student Support and Advocacy Services (SSAS) in the Dean of Students Office receives and responds to concerns about students in distress – from family members, faculty, staff, and peers. When you contact SSAS, a Care Manager will reach out to the student and to you, as needed, and will collaborate with campus partners (including Cornell Health, when appropriate) to provide support for the student.  

SSAS is available Monday-Friday, 8:00 am – 5:00 pm:

Urgent concerns (24/7):

If your concern is urgent, contact Cornell’s Public Safety Communications Center. This office connects callers with appropriate resources, including emergency response / ambulance, the Cornell Administrator on-Call, the Community Response Team, CU Police, and other resources. 

  • Call 607-255-1111 (24/7)
  • Or call 911 (connects to Cornell Public Safety from a campus phone and local emergency dispatch from other phones)