Many of my coaching families call upon me for help after their young adult child struggles to get through or fails out of their first year of university. They blame their child’s video gaming addiction on the outcome of this academic failure. 

But is the problematic gaming just a symptom and a coping mechanism of the challenges that many first year students face?

Colleges and universities do not have to report how many failures contribute to the 29 to 30 percent of students who leave school during or after their first year. But there’s no doubt that post secondary education can be tough, particularly for first year students.

This spring, I had the pleasure of meeting a newly graduating student in Commerce, Tabitha Doyle, who shared with me her experience, as well as the journeys of some of the other students she witnessed wrestling with their first year transition stresses.

This conversation was prompted when I shared how quickly my son fell into a rabbit hole of despair and turned to dangerously excessive video gaming to cope with his anxiety and depression when things didn’t go as well as he’d expected in his first year at the University of Guelph.

Tabitha’s response to hearing his story was one of great understanding. She, too, felt that her expectations shifted while she was navigating the extra workload of academics and self care, amid a newly found freedom. As Tabitha explains, high school is still a place where teachers offer a lot of encouragement and supervision, smaller classrooms and lots of rules to follow. Parents are also there to keep you on task and remind you to do your homework. First year of university is overwhelming and difficult to adjust to; all that excitement to be on your own, away from your parents, fewer rules, and the ability to create your own pace, schedule, and activities can lead to a very undisciplined and unruly experience. 

On the one hand, a student enters post-secondary with the confidence that they got the grades they needed to be accepted, so they must be smart. While on the other hand, when assignments are not handed in on time and study habits slip, grades drop and confidence shatters, suddenly, there’s great panic, the student questioning whether or not university courses are still manageable for them!

Coupled with academic challenges and heavier workload, is the newly acquired responsibility to feed oneself healthy and balanced meals, get laundry and housekeeping done, deal with homesickness, and sort out residence and roommate quandaries.

For Tabitha, having a meal plan was both a blessing and a curse. She never had to learn how to cook properly and having access to any foods she wanted, with just the swipe of a card, meant that she didn’t eat as healthy and gained weight she hadn’t planned on. Her roommate situation was pretty good, as she’s quite social. But she witnessed others who didn’t match well with flat mates, some introverts assigned extraverted and noisy roomies, some students who were messy while others were quite clean. Tabitha described first year housing as a bit of a crapshoot, depending on one’s personality. Assigned roommates and navigating boundaries can be uncomfortable if things just don’t gel between you. Even washrooms and showering were an eye opening experience, some shared co-ed with minimum numbers of showers available, far less privacy than a shower at home, and sinks and countertops in separate rooms, making it a hassle to be carrying around toiletries and hoping one wouldn’t forget and leave them behind.

Outside of personal logistics, her biggest fear and that of most of the students around her, was failing a class, and falling behind. This failure invoked tremendous panic initially. 

Once the reality of failure is imminent, self confidence takes a hit, and panic sets in about when one will find the time to make up the class. Will they have to add an extra course to their already bulging course load in the next semester, register for a summer school class, or add another semester or year to their program?

For Tabitha, there was no worry that her parent wouldn’t be supportive, and she had good friends who would rally around her. But this was not the case for other students. She discovered that some of her friends were so afraid of a failure showing up on their records, that they would drop the class beforehand and only show a withdrawal on their transcript. One student completely left their program.

What Tabitha learned when she did fail a class was that she didn’t enter university with the kind of note-taking and study habits she needed. She’d relied on memorization to get her through tests, and she’d never really learned how best to take notes for university classes. In other words, there was far too much spoon feeding in secondary school, so good note taking and test preparation hadn’t become a priority. 

For my son, he had an unfounded, perceived belief that he would disappoint my husband and I if he failed, so he lied and tried to hide his results. As it is with many of my coaching clients, he coped with his drop in esteem by hiding behind a screen, playing endless hours of video games, hoping to fill up his despair in his ability to beat the game and come out on top with high scores. This unhealthy coping mechanism took him into a deep, dark emotional space. 

Playing video games was a place he’d had previous success and a sense of joy with, so as Tabitha explained, gaming provided him a creature comfort he’d experienced before leaving home for university. To attain a sense of comfort, as an extrovert, Tabitha took solace in hanging out with friends much more than she should have and avoided meeting assignment due dates, while some of her friends took comfort in overeating and/or drinking, binge watching YouTube and Netflix, or scrolling excessively on social media.

So, what is it that we need to do to better prepare our young people to enter university, have a meaningful experience, and adapt in a healthier way? How do we stop them from panicking when the transition becomes more than they can manage?

Tabitha suggests that parents stop putting so much pressure on their child to have exceptional grades and no failures. It’s an unrealistic expectation. Don’t be discouraging or angry about a failure. This is a time when your child needs your support the most.

Many students are still too immature to make the leap into university straight out of high school. Know your child and perhaps consider allowing them to take an extra year of high school credits or a gap year, so they can mature.

Enroll your child with a tutor or tutoring service that specializes in efficient note taking, study habits, and time management while they are still in secondary school.

Speak with your child about reaching out and asking for help when they are struggling. There’s no shame in finding the academic transition difficult. Asking for help is not a sign of weakness, nor is it something they should feel shame or embarrassment over. As Tabitha explained, failure is an essential part of life, and we learn and grow from the experience.

As much as possible, help your child to learn to establish meaningful connections. Offer them situations where they can step outside of their comfort zones, look for areas of interest where they will meet other like-minded individuals. This way, they will be more likely to look for school clubs to join and participate in, to lessen the isolation and loneliness one might experience in a new environment, away from home.

Encourage your child to participate in class, ask questions, and establish a relationship with their professor. If they do find a class more difficult or they get a bad grade on an assignment, being comfortable with the professor will give them the confidence to reach out and ask what it is they need to do to bring up their grade or what other resources they can tap into to have a better understanding of the subject.

And stay in touch with your child while they are away at school. As Tabitha says, check in because we still want to stay connected with our families, but understand the line between calling too much and still wanting to know how we’re doing.

To help understand the workings of the student’s brain and for helpful tips on creating better study habits and organizational skills, read The Disintegrating Student; Struggling But Smart and How to Turn it Around by Jeannine Jannot, Ph D.

And for more information on providing your child a meaningful gap year that will help prepare them with more success in post secondary studies, go to