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Getting college ready with Dr. Laura Kastner

Published on: October 01, 2009

College studentDoesn’t it seem as if the college quest has just about taken over the high school years? Seattle author and psychologist Laura Kastner, Ph.D., says the whole process of the “launching year” — applying to college, choosing a school and ultimately leaving home — can trigger mega amounts of anxiety for parents and teens.

How does the parent-child relationship begin to change during this “launching” year?

The launch from home to college is one of the most profound developmental transitions in the family cycle. First, our babies are born to us, and then they leave us. Of course, we stay connected, and our relationships endure and flourish and usually even improve. But the fact remains that our beloved teens are about to live elsewhere, where we will not see them daily or oversee their health and welfare. This huge change triggers uncertainty in them and in us.

In our book The Launching Years (co-written with Jennifer F. Wyatt), we call this “launch anxiety,” which can be contagious, family-wide and expressed in many ways. Even though high school seniors can be excited about the freedom associated with college life, at the same time they can feel anxious and worried about their readiness for the challenges.

While teens often become more comfortable with their parents by age 16 or 17 (compared to early and middle adolescence), the college launch process can stimulate a recurrence of the turmoil of yesteryears. Launch anxiety and the mayhem of college planning and decision-making can trigger a resurgence of parent-child conflict about everything from SAT preparation to sloppy manners and bad attitudes.

High school seniors reveal their launch anxiety and ambivalent feelings about both being at home and leaving home by “spoiling the nest”: senior slump (dropping grades), irritability with friends and family, and picking fights. Among other functions, these difficulties serve to create more friction, elicit negative reactions in parents and make parents easier to leave. How handy! Nature works in mysterious ways.

Essays must be written, and applications must be completed. How can parents avoid badgering their kids to get these things done?

Ideally, the student is responsible for this process and meets with a school counselor to create a college list, a process of evaluation of colleges and deadlines for application completion.

The student might identify one or two people to edit their essays — sometimes parents are chosen (rarely) and sometimes it might be a wise aunt, neighbor or teacher. Editors need a light hand, because readers in the admissions offices are experts at detecting fraud.

Because launch anxiety surfaces in the form of procrastination among even the best of students, frequently parents do find themselves nagging. Students end up dragging their parents into a battle (how convenient!) instead of dealing with their anxious feelings about college.

One way to avoid badgering is to have a family agreement about the completion of various tasks associated with the application process. Parents can offer rewards or incentives for completing essays and forms, or withhold privileges for noncompliance. The latter is trickier, because even though the parent may feel entitled to badger or give a consequence for procrastination, negative vibes are not known to inspire eloquent essays.

When is it a good idea to hire a college consultant?

Hiring a private college counselor can be worth every cent if it eliminates the parent-child battleground during the senior year. Consultants can be helpful when parents know that they have a lot of anxiety about the college launch or if they have a history of nagging their teen and eliciting the backfire effect of receiving less (not more) cooperation from their teen. In addition, consultants can contribute significant help when teens have unique issues to address, for instance, a learning disability, access to mental health services, or a high school that lacks college counseling services.

What are parents of high school seniors most worried about? What should they be worried about?

Parents and their high school seniors have many concerns in common: “getting in” to a desirable college; ultimately liking the chosen college; college roommates; balancing social lives with academic lives; college grades; leaving friends and family behind; and the uncertainty of the future.

Parents worry much more about college problems like binge drinking, bad study habits, casual sex, mental health stressors and the fact that college freshmen need to adjust to having almost no external oversight of their behavioral choices. College students can sleep in, skip classes, party whenever they want, go to bed at 5 a.m. and avoid homework all they want.

Parents need to trust that the competence represented in a college admission is tucked inside of their kids and adequate for helping them tackle the challenges of the freshman year. For parents of students with wobbly academic and behavioral records, this is truly a leap of faith.

What are their kids worried about?

College launchers report worries like “Will I fit in?” “Will I be happy there?” “What if I can’t cut it?” “What if I hate my roommate?” “What if I made the wrong choice” and “What if I get homesick?”

Like their parents, they need to believe that they have skills to address whatever college problems do arise. However, it helps if students recognize that these very common concerns surface because they are facing the unknown, which often triggers anxiety, resulting in their brains spewing out “what if” thoughts.

It also helps if they self-soothe by recounting all of the reasons why they have accumulated enough social, emotional and academic competence to handle upcoming challenges.

Other parents — some of them hypercompetitive, others just curious — often like keeping track of other people’s kids. How should you respond when parents ask questions about your child’s college hopes or plans?

Sometimes students don’t care about being under the microscope of the parent community, but most of the time they do. I recommend the golden rule. Would we want our kids to report on our body weight, the contents of our tax return or our sex lives? Believe it or not, information about SATs, GPAs and the college rankings of dream schools versus safety schools can feel just as personal to high school seniors.
Give out the information that your teen chooses to have open to the public.

If she or he prefers privacy, consider confidentiality. In that case, my favorite response is “Sally has some options that she is evaluating, and we’ll let you know when the time comes.” If the questioner persists, you can add, “I appreciate your interest. Sally will let everybody know when she is ready.” If there’s a third round of questions, just tell them Sally likes her privacy, and you are a respectful parent.

In the next few months, many students will hear from their “early decision” colleges. What’s the best way to comfort a rejected – and very disappointed – teen?

Because the college launch is fraught with so much anxiety, teens and their parents can resort to “all or none” thinking and extreme feelings when disappointing news arrives.
In our rational minds, we know that we don’t have crystal balls, so we can’t know truly where our children will thrive and where they will wither. But because of the marketing process and prestige branding inculcated into us our whole lives, our emotional brains can trick us into feeling that we—and they—just received catastrophic news. For parents, it can feel like their life options have just become reduced in one fell swoop.

For teens, the experience of loss can be as strong as losing their first romantic partner. The teen will recover (and so will you), but at the moment the news feels devastating.
Initially, the news can feel so awful that no words can quell the grief. Resuming (or creating) a rational and optimistic perspective may take days or weeks. So the first goal is to “don’t just do something, stand there.” In other words, expressing support and empathy is ambitious enough when the thin envelope arrives. Later, when they start to be open to conversation, you can address coping, all the other alternatives available, and the advantages of having more time to mull over a good match in April.

Dr. Laura Kastner is the co-author, along with writer Jennifer Wyatt, of Getting to Calm: Cool-headed Strategies for Parenting Tweens and Teens


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