UCD Student Advisers
Family Difficulties are often a primary source of students’ distress, giving rise to
a variety of issues that they may have to deal with. The difficulties may involve
contemporary conflicts, disruptions and / or crises both within the family and
between the student and salient family members. It is also very common that
family problems lie beneath the surface of students’ complaints, both academic
Two factors in particular seem to contribute to this situation:
• The changes in the structure of the family stemming from women’s
changing position in the society, the changing sexual division of labour
and the increasing rates of separation / divorce.
• The developmental status of students who are in the process of
separating and establishing themselves as autonomous individuals.
What are the different types of family difficulties?
Autonomy struggles in conflicted families
Students’ internal conflicts about becoming independent may have special
intensity and meaning when their families are divided and hence insecure.
Students then may fear to become autonomous and disrupt the family further.
Autonomy struggles usually manifest themselves in crises centered around
academic performance - the most obvious avenue to independence at this life
stage. For example, a student’s ambivalence about detaching him / herself from
home may be expressed as a fear of success. They may be fully able to
succeed, want to do so, and at the same time feel that they are “needed” at
home. Their role as focus of parental conflict may block them in attempts to
achieve. Students who have been forced to comply with the wishes of a
controlling parent may express their autonomy struggles in crises of will, such as
loss of motivation, absenteeism and so on.
Difficulties stemming from loss
Parental death, separation / divorce, and disabling illness constitute significant
losses for students. Usually these losses have taken place prior to the college
years and may be implicated in concerns about current relationships, depressive
feelings and identity conflicts, fears and sense of aloneness during periods of
separation. Frequently students adopt a stance of pseudoindependence and they
need to find ways by which to obtain and accept emotional supports.
An earlier loss may be reactivated by the developmental stage and by a current
family situation. Consequently, the student may need to express their grief for the
lost parent, and face the feelings associated with the deceased in order to free
up the capacity for future attachments.
UCD Student Advisers
Difficulties in separating from the family
Although many students may have to deal with ordinary separation problems
when going to college, there are certain family circumstances, which make
separation especially complicated. One kind of complication may appear in
same-sex parent-child relationships, in which a parent over-identifies with and
attempts to live through the child. For example, a student may try to be the
idealised woman her mother would have liked to have been herself.
Another complication is present in relationships where the child has assumed the
role of the parent’s caretaker. The student may regard his parent as quite
psychologically vulnerable and fear that the latter would be threatened if he were
to become more independent.
In such cases, students may sabotage themselves, e.g. failing to complete
projects, dropping courses, becoming pregnant, or develop symptoms, such as
anxiety or phobias, when they need to make important decisions, e.g. graduating,
career commitments etc.
Students from families in which there has been little available parenting
(disengaged families) suffer from lack of psychological inputs. This in turn may
limit their capacity to make use of resources within the college. Disengagement
may consist of emotional distance from at least one parent, or in separated
families, of a frequently absent father and an emotionally withdrawn or self-
Depending upon which parent is more disengaged and the degree and chronic
nature of emotional distance, students may exhibit varying difficulties and
problems. They may experience diffuse feelings of dissatisfaction, complain of
lack of interests, express indifference in achieving, extreme sensitivity to
rejection, and have low self-esteem.
Quite often, disengagement in young college women involves the father-daughter
relationship. The distance may be a result of marital instability, or a father's
extreme discomfort with their adolescent daughter's sexuality. Female students
whose father is emotionally unavailable and unsupportive of their feminine self
may be inclined to enter relationships with immature partners.
When a student is unable to inform the parents about his or her problems or feels
that the parents will deny his / her difficulties, it is important to utilise resources
within the college. Talking to a Student Adviser or seeking support from a
counsellor can be avenues to the formation of understanding and reparative
UCD Student Advisers
Dryden, W. & Gordon, J. (1995). How to Cope with Difficult Parents. London:
Forward, S. (1989). Toxic Parents: Overcoming Their Hurtful Legacy and
Reclaiming Your Life. New York: Bantam Books.
Skynner, R.R. & Cleese, J. (1983). Families and How to Survive Them. London:
UCD Student Advisers wish to thank the Student Counselling Service of Trinity
College Dublin for granting permission to reproduce this information.