The Stress of College Preparation

As a psychotherapist who treats adolescents, I have been thinking a lot about the stresses students face when they near the transition from high school to college. Parents and students typically focus on the college application process. They plot timetables for standardized tests, research schools and plan college visits. But a topic too often neglected is the emotional issue students confront when they begin planning for college. It is important for parents to understand the emotional demands their teens face so that they can help ease the stress of the years preceding college.

There is no doubt that many high school students are frazzled. Fully aware of today’s intense Help Your Teen Transition from High School to Collegecompetition for entry to colleges, many are up until midnight completing homework. Their afterschool hours are crammed with activities – sports, theater, SAT tutors – and jobs. Many can’t even begin to tackle their homework until 8:00 pm. These kids are exhausted. When you add social pressures and the emotional challenges of growing up and assuming new responsibilities, it is no wonder they are stressed.

The chatter about college is quiet when teens enter high school, but by the time they are juniors and seniors it reaches a crescendo, with conversations at school and at home. Even complete strangers don’t hesitate to ask, “So what colleges are you looking at?” For students who have no idea what schools they are interested in, this question evokes feelings of annoyance and insecurity. All students know that behind this question lurks a judgment of their status. While such inquiries are often innocent conversation starters, to students they are intrusive questions that serve as constant reminders of the pressure surrounding the college process.

Talk of college brings to the forefront a teen’s struggle with the conflicting pulls of dependence and independence. It brings up issues of separation, not just from parents but from peers. College chatter stirs worries about change and anxiety over the uncertainly of the outcome. Feelings of competition that motivate some but inhibit others are roused. College planning also forces teens to assess themselves, to think about their strengths and weaknesses, to anticipate in which environments they can envision themselves, and to think about educational and career goals. High school students are bombarded with these questions at a time when their brains are still developing and their identities are still forming, with each student maturing at a different rate.

Suggestions to Help Your College Bound Child

While a certain amount of stress can be motivating, too much stress can be debilitating, leading to anxiety, eating disorders, substance abuse, physical illness and depression. How can parents help? Here are just a few suggestions from my experience as a therapist working with teens and as a mom.

  • Acknowledge your own worries regarding your teen’s growing independence and educational future, and do your best not to impose your anxiety on your child.
  • Foster your teen’s autonomy and self-sufficiency. If you sense that your teen is overwhelmed, help him/her brainstorm ways to manage time and to prioritize.
  • Back off sometimes. Let your child learn from his/her own mistakes, but still provide support.
  • Be there for your teen. Nurture him/her with hugs, family meals, and time together.
  • Be more tolerant of the occasional emotional outburst. Your teen may need to vent, and sometimes home is the safest place.
  • Keep things in perspective. Teach your teen that while you have high expectations of him/her, it is not grades or accomplishments that matter, but the kind of person he/she is.
  • Build a strong emotional relationship with your teen. Teens are better able to launch from a solid home base.
  • Make sure your teen has downtime to relax with friends, listen to music, and just get a break.

If you are concerned that your teen is too overwhelmed, don’t hesitate to seek professional help. Your teen may be able to talk more freely to a psychotherapist or counselor. Teens often benefit from having a safe space, free from the pressure of teachers, parents, and peers, where they can discuss their feelings, gain perspective on their stressors and develop new coping skills to manage them.