Mindful and Heartful Tips for Parents of College Applicants
Mary Beth Mannarino, Ph.D. – Dr. Mannarino recently retired from her faculty position at Chatham University, where she educated and trained counselors and psychologists. She has a consultation and coaching practice in Squirrel Hill (Pittsburgh, PA), and is also actively engaged in promoting healthful environments in families, communities, and the larger world.
Her website: www.marybethmannarino.com
Carol Balk, MSCP – Ms. Balk earned a Master of Science degree in Counseling Psychology from Chatham University. She has worked since 2014 at the University’s Career Development Center, counseling students in developing and pursuing their career aspirations. She is also an adjunct professor for both graduate and undergraduate programs.
Helping your young adult through their college application process can be an exciting time for both of you. Your young adult is stepping into the next stage of life, a period of learning and growth that can enrich their lives immeasurably. They are making important choices that will move them closer to work and personal goals as adults. These dynamics are likely to create change, and so it can be effective to maintain awareness of your emotions as you help your teenager to manage the process of applying to college, as well as his or her own emotions about this process and its accompanying changes.
Your family may also feel stressed during this time. If so, know that you are not alone. Each year, the Princeton Review surveys parents and students involved in the college application process about their “hopes and worries.” In response to the 2017 survey, 76% of the respondents reported very high or high levels of stress, with more students (77%) reporting high levels of stress than parents (69%). These figures are up from 56% in 2003, the first year of the survey.
What causes such stress? Top of the list of concerns are, unsurprisingly, finances and the prospect of taking on mountains of debt. Other worries relate to actually completing applications, a student’s being accepted to the first choice or other acceptable school, finding a school that is a good fit for the student, and the location of the school relative to home. How do these concerns compare to those with which you are dealing?
There are also worries that are not so close to the surface, that are harder to identify and put into words. These concerns can lurk like elusive gremlins under the surface, sometimes out of our range of awareness. Is my young adult really ready for college? How will they adjust to the new academic and social demands? Will they make friends? Do okay in classes? Be happy? Have I been a “good enough” parent and given them what they need to be successful? And, often the most elusive of all: how will my life change when my young adult is gone? Do any of these concerns sound familiar to you? What else runs through your mind?
Sometimes we are acutely aware of the more complex thoughts and feelings. Sometimes we just feel vaguely anxious or even irritable, and aren’t sure why. Add these experiences into what your young adult is going through—and the stress of making post-high school plans intensifies.
So—what can you do for your student and for yourself amidst this challenging time?
Take care of yourself. Pay attention to your own thoughts and feelings about your young adult applying to and eventually leaving for college. Talking this through with a friend or other member of your community can be very helpful. By identifying these underlying emotions and beliefs, you can gain perspective on how they are affecting how you interact with him or her. Also, consider how you are affected by their behaviors and emotions. Know that feelings around these issues are varied and complex, and accept that it is normal to have some ups and downs during this period. Remember that taking care of yourself is a high priority for many reasons—it helps your student who is dealing with many uncertainties about their future, it improves your own quality of life, and it can preserve or even enrich your relationship with your young adult.
Reach out for a fresh perspective to friends and family who have been through this before. Move out of your bubble of concerns and connect with fellow parents. Others before you have walked this path and have found wisdom, if not in the moment then in hindsight, that they would be delighted to share.
And if your high school student’s stress hits the fan? First, remain calm yourself—even when you are feeling worried or stressed. Easier said than done, for sure, but keep in mind that doing this models for your student how to stay focused and calm amid uncertainty. Second, try to understand your young adult’s own process of making plans. This requires lots of listening and observing, seeing the application process from their perspective. Their ways of working may be very different from yours. Be supportive of their efforts to manage the process in their own way, and remember that they—as was true for you—will learn about themselves just in the doing. There are also professionals who can assist you and your student as you figure out what is next—high school counselors, college admission consultants, therapists, and coaches.
Above all, know that you are not alone. Seek support when you want and need it.