Advice for Students Starting University Without a Family Network

Going to university without family support can be a daunting process. We all need a bit of reassurance sometimes and help with the changes that university life brings. Here's advice on some of the hurdles that our student community have told us has made an impact on their student experience.

Going to university without family support can be a daunting process. We all need a bit of reassurance sometimes and help with the changes that university life brings. For those of us who don't have parents to do this, we often cling to our childhood friends, teachers and extended family members. Here's advice on some of the hurdles that might affect your student experience.

What if nobody understands that I don't have a family to rely on?

There can be a lot of pressure to make friends when you first arrive at university. It's common to feel as if every other student has the perfect family, and worry that people might judge you if they find out you don't have the same. It can be hard to get away from these fears, particularly when other students talk about how much their family misses them or seeing them unpack support packages every week. This can bring up a mix of feelings: jealousy, anxiety, upset, shame, anger and frustration. Why aren't mine the same?

These feelings can be heightened if people ask you directly about your family! What should I say? How much should I tell them? The answer: you should only ever tell other people as much as is comfortable for you in the moment. Talking about your difficult family situation whilst drinking at a freshers ball could end up being more upsetting than you anticipate.

If you don't want to tell the whole story when people ask, you can say: 'we're not that close'. If someone persists in asking questions, you are within your rights to say: 'I'd rather not talk about it with you now'. If you that someone hasn't reacted well when you tell them, remember that they probably won't be thinking less of you. They simply may not have realised that all families are not as close as their own - family breakdown can be a hard concept to imagine if you haven't been through it, or had a friend who has been through it before.

University or college is a time where you can find the right friends. Not everyone that you meet will understand your family experience but there will eventually be people that do. 1 in 5 families are touched by estrangement and so the chances are that you're not the only person in the room with these kind of experiences.

I haven't got enough money...

There are endless expectations for students to spend in their first weeks - books, food, drinks, clothes, cabs, mobile phones all cost money. Our research shows that students who are studying without family support really feel the financial pinch. This can lead to a lot of stress, particularly around May and June when the summer period is around the corner. Budgeting your money is crucial.

You can get help and advice about your money from your student advice centre or student union. Money advice workers can help you with budgeting your money throughout the year. They can also help with accessing emergency funds from the university if you get stuck, and will help you to get the right amount of money from Student Loans Company or Student Awards Agency Scotland as an independent student. Advisors often help to pull together evidence to 'prove' your estrangement for these agencies if you have struggled on your own.

You might feel that these kinds of professionals won't fully understand your problems or absence of family network. 'It's embarrassing!' This is understandable when you have removed yourself or experienced family breakdown, as we often have a fear of judgement when approaching others. It might seem more of a private matter. However, your student money advisors will offer confidential, understanding and non-judgemental advice. They specialise in helping young people from all backgrounds with their money and accommodation issues and won't tell you that your family breakdown is right or wrong.

You can search for your dedicated worker at your university by clicking here:

I can't cope with the stress...

Young people who have become estranged or disowned from their family often feel confused and alone in their memories and experiences. The combination of managing your studies and social life, alongside full or part-time work can also often be stressful. This juggling of practicalities, emotions and bad memories can bring up a lot of anxiety!

It's important to check in with your university wellbeing advisors as soon as you begin to feel your stress levels or anxiety are getting too much. This is a key time for young people to experience family changes and support services do understand the pressures. As well as offering counselling sessions and other types of a therapeutic support, wellbeing centres also run workshops and events that can help you to meet others who understand the experience of stress, anxiety and depression.

There are university friendship groups who can help you, such as 'Student Minds'. You can help to manage your stress and mood: regular exercise such as running, cycling or swimming; daily meditation practice; martial arts club; creative and expressive disciplines such as drama, writing and art and design practices are all helpful outlets.

Managing your mental health can be hard work at times, but it's important not to give up or give in.

Tip: 'Headspace' mindfulness app is very useful for people experiencing difficulties with thoughts and ruminations.

I want to quit...

There are many reasons why students drop out of their studies. There's nothing to be ashamed about if you decide university isn't for you. It's sad that leaving a course can make us feel like a failure and this often reinforces negative messages about ourselves that we heard in the past. However, it's important to distinguish why you are leaving.

Are you leaving because you are struggling for money? Are you having issues with delays from Student Loans Company or SAAS? Are you feeling too lonely or stressed? The pressure caused by these problems can be eased by visiting your student advice centre and telling someone about your needs. It's worth trying to access support before you make your final decision.

If you feel your course is not for you then you should think about researching your options. There are some common issues that estranged students face when they want to leave university, which can be daunting. Most of us don't have a family home to bounce back on, and the threat of homelessness lives with anyone who doesn't have that unconditional family support.

Shelter's helpline gives excellent advice about accommodation: 0808 800 4444

Be kind to yourself...

Going to university without family support is a bold and brave step. Each month, remember to take a moment to congratulate you on your strength and resilience in taking that leap. You're doing very well indeed!

'But I just don't feel that way!'

It's common to get caught self-critical thoughts. A close, strong and unconditionally supportive family network is the ideal that we are taught we should all strive towards. It's not easy going the opposite way! But remember you're not alone in doing so...

The next time you feel trapped in judgement or shame about your family situation, ask yourself: Is that all that I should be defined by? Would it really be fair for someone else to judge me as a person only based on my family breakdown?

We recommend reading this book by Brene Brown if you'd like to know more about developing self-kindness.

Other useful links...

If you're surviving any kind of abuse, you can talk to National Association People Abused Childhood: 0800 085 3330

If you're surviving forced marriage call Karma Nirvana: 0800 5999247

If you are feeling very low or thinking about taking your own life you call Samaritans 24 hours a day: 116 123

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