By Jotham Busfield, MSW, LICSW
The process of preparing for college can be a roller coaster of emotions for students and their parents.
For students, the excitement of the countdown to freedom is often countered by the stress of maintaining good grades, standardized testing, and the potential for rejection.
For parents, proudly watching their son or daughter emerge into adulthood may come along with some strings attached. The changing relationship dynamic is hard for some parents to adjust to. There can be challenges with the college planning timeline and one missed deadline can make a huge difference.
Additionally, it can often be hard for parents to know how to appropriately balance their involvement in the college pursuit and decision making process.
All most parents and students want is a smooth transition from high school to college, allowing the student to gain autonomy through a process that puts them in the best possible position to be happy and successful. Here are five tips parents can utilize to best support their student on the path towards college.
Start before high school
It is important to cultivate unique areas of interest and encourage exploration. Prior to college, kids have little choice in WHAT they learn in school. The earlier they explore topics or areas of interest outside of school, the better, as this drives interest, motivation, and creativity. These areas of interest often end up being part of the path they end up going down for college and/or career. Pursuing a career requires focus and effort. Focus and effort require SOME level of interest, and the more interest you have the easier it is. As an added bonus, this would greatly improve the chances that they end up loving what they do! How many people can honestly say they love what they do for work? When someone finds the type of work they like so much it ceases to feel like work, now THAT is an amazing thing.
Key tip: Rome wasn’t built in a day! The learning and preparation process is just that, a PROCESS. Each day has teachable moments, and just because one teachable moment may appear to fall flat or is received poorly by the student, this does not mean in the end that moment won’t play it’s puzzle piece role as part of the whole.
Introduce elements of emotional intelligence
Emotional Intelligence involves learning key skills related to self awareness, personal command, and social intelligence, skills that are often more integral to future success than standard IQ or book smarts. This can be incorporated by the parent, for those parents who consider themselves skilled in emotional intelligence and are up to the challenge of finding creative ways to pass those skills along to their son or daughter. It can also be explored with the right coach [https://think-diff.blog/2017/03/19/7-reasons-why-your-high-school-student-should-work-with-a-coach/]. The academic and social transition can be more pronounced around 9th and 10th grade and the incidence of depression is not surprisingly higher around this period of development. This time is so important because it takes place JUST before the college process begins. Learning about Emotional Intelligence will equip the student with increased self-awareness, coping strategies, and the interpersonal skills needed to handle an increased workload and difficult collegiate application process.
Key tip: Try to explore emotional intelligence. Even parents who are highly emotionally intelligent may not be well versed in how to describe or teach the concepts behind it. There are a lot of great articles and books out there on EI, picking one and going through it could prove a helpful guide.
Don’t force the college process on them, establish some discrepancy so that what they do is tied to their own hopes, dreams and goals, not yours and not because you are mandating them to. Establishing discrepancy is a concept often mentioned in “motivational interviewing” and it is all about figuring out what a student might want to do and why they may want to commit to doing it, in their words, on their terms.
On another note, discipline may be useful when rules are broken in general, but it can often be ineffective and even harmful when used in conjunction with imposing a path on someone else’s life. If a student is not able to follow through on parts of the academic or college planning process, chances are they are not buying in due to confidence issues or are not equipped with the skills to prioritize or follow through. Either way, punishment will likely do NOTHING to change that, all it will do is negatively impact the trust and overall relationship between student and parent, and will likely sink the student’s levels of confidence and self-esteem.
Key tip: Ask the right questions (preferably open ended questions) about what they want from the college experience. Use the questions to brainstorm goals, the key word being “brainstorm” because if someone is told what the goal is, they are far less likely to buy-in to pursuing the goal. When they are part of the decision making process when it comes to goal identification, motivation goes up.
Allow for Flexibility
As mentioned previously, there are many ups and downs to the college planning process. It is helpful to allow for some flexibility and imperfection, while providing support if they are in a rut. Try to be a level…as your child fluctuates up and down, the more you are grounded and centered, the easier your child will learn to do the same and stay balanced and even keeled.
Key tip: Don’t take things personally! If a student projects anger or sadness onto a parent it usually means two things. One, they trust the parent more than anyone else and thus let them into their world of emotion. Two, it may be a call for help. Once you put their words and actions through a “teen student” filter, it sounds a lot less like “you suck, I hate you!” and a lot more like “I am struggling and trust you to be secure enough to recognize that and help me.”
Key tip #2: A “call for help” does not always mean FIX. Help can often mean “LISTEN to me vent and validate my struggle, but let me figure out the solution myself.”
Communication is KEY
Focusing on effective communication is an underrated aspect of healthy relationships and can be especially important during significant life transitions. High school to college is usually the first major life transition for a person. If the communication breaks down between student and parent(s), it can disrupt the process, lead to unintended and disappointing results, and set the tone for the next phase of their life and how they will handle communication in their important relationships moving forward. Modeling effective communication is KEY.
Key tip: Try out news ways of engaging in conversations, instead of always saying, “how was your day” or “how was school” or “how are those college apps coming along.” Repetitive questions or questions that cut right to the chase too quickly, risk putting the parents into the dreaded TUNED OUT TERRITORY. What is that you ask? When a young student gets asked the same questions too frequently, it annoys them because they feel nagged, AND they start to think that their parents don’t trust them to get things done on their own. This combo, over time, leads a student to tune out any and all questions that come from their parent(s). For a parent, once you are in this zone, it is very hard to get out.
Key tip #2: Timing is everything. If you ask questions most students hate answering after they have had a really long day of school and/or athletics, they are not likely to engage back in a positive way. A Saturday or Sunday morning after they have rested might be a better time. Also, creatively broaching the subject after doing some kind of fun family activity might catch them at the right time. A good example of this for parents is coming home from a long, stressful day of work and being asked by a family member “did you do the dishes and take out the trash yet?” right when you walk in the door. It is nice to have a moment to decompress and relax for a few minutes before being asked to do something, right? Kids are no different.
Key tip #3: Put it in terms they can understand. What motivates the student, or who they look up to, can often be a good guide for how to phrase goals or pose questions designed to get updates. Referencing current events, an athlete they follow, or a person/topic from popular culture can be a great way to begin a conversation, even if the end goal is to figure out where they stand with a task or part of the college preparation process.
Preparing and planning for college can be a stressful process, but it can also be an opportunity to connect and strengthen the parent/child relationship. Often, the focus is fixated on maintaining perfect grades, meeting deadlines, taking standardized tests, and getting into the perfect college. By zooming out however, parents can improve the end result by cultivating areas of interest early on, exploring emotional intelligence, increasing motivation, allowing for imperfection while providing support, and focusing on improved communication. Those are five examples of how to Think-diff about the college planning process.
Jotham Busfield, MSW, LICSW is a Co-Owner, Coach, and Clinician at Think-diff Institute in Lexington, MA (www.think-diff.com)
In case you missed it: (https://think-diff.blog/2017/03/19/7-reasons-why-your-high-school-student-should-work-with-a-coach/)
Coming up soon: (Tips for stress management)
 Goleman, D. (1995). Emotional intelligence. New York: Bantam.
 Erickson SJ, Gerstle M, Feldstein SW. Brief interventions and motivational interviewing with children, adolescents, and their parents in pediatric health care settings: a review. Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med. 2005;159:1173- 1180