How to Talk to Your Child About College
The College Admissions Process: it’s stressful. Very stressful — for young people and their parents. Even when it’s not the topic of conversation, it still feels like the elephant in the room, ready to wriggle its way into a family fight at a moment’s notice. So, what is the best way to talk to your child about college?
NYU researchers warned us in 2015 that 49% of all high school juniors surveyed report “high levels of chronic stress”. There is an increasingly competitive pool of prospective college students. So, kids today find themselves on a punishing loop of school, extra-curriculars, homework, sleep (not enough of it), rinse, and repeat.
I’d like to see a comparative study on the stress levels of these students’ parents! Parents who will do anything to help their child happily succeed. Parents who sometimes also fail to realize that their children have yet to comprehend the immense love and care that has been provided. So, even with all of the love and best intentions in the world, parents often find it impossible to have calm and constructive conversations with their children about college. Lo and behold: that big cloud of STRESS gets in the way and frustration reigns.
But it doesn’t have to be this way.
If stress is the problem we face, the solution is getting around it.
Here’s a trick that really works: change the nature of the conversation. Families, like the people within them, operate in patterns and habits. When you talk to your child about college, and it starts falling into a familiarly frustrating rotation, where you feel like a taskmaster and your son or daughter feels over-pressured or misunderstood, break the pattern!
In his “parent playbook,” Surviving Your Child’s Adolescence, Ph.D. psychologist Carl Pickhardt suggests that parents try asking their kids if they’re interested in hearing what Mom or Dad thinks about college. Rather than a demand to engage a stressful topic, kids read this question as an invitation to learn from people who’ve lived whole lives and have useful perspectives to share.
When they start with an open invitation like this, parents find they can spend more quality time. They can also talk about what matters most: how exciting and fulfilling and empowering college can be.
Empowering. That’s an important word here.
The more that students are empowered to imagine the exciting shape of their collegiate future, the more likely they’ll be to take charge of their own admissions cycle. To own it. Then they’ll be ready to ask for help rather than waiting for deadlines to pile up.
So, when you talk to your child about college, tell them about your favorite college class or professor. If you didn’t go to college, tell them about something you’ve always wanted to learn. Remind them of all the friendships you made and how lasting and deep they can prove to be. Let them know that the college application process will be difficult at first, but that they’ll find their way. Because, much more likely than not, they really will.
If you can help your child believe that they are in charge of the process rather than the other way round, everyone’s life will suddenly feel easier. You’ll notice they’ll get swept up by imagination and excitement for the future rather than the fear of it.
It can be so difficult to take a step away from the accelerating track of expectations, and just…breathe. But that space of calm perspective is where the magic lies. And, there’s no one better than parents to make it happen for their kids.