4 Ways to Support Your College-Bound Teen

It’s a big deal when your child goes off to college. Not only is this a moment that you have likely been dreaming about for their entire life, but it is also something you’ve watched your child work hard to achieve every day for the past four years. Maybe you helped them research colleges, tour campuses, or prepare for interviews. Maybe you sat back and watched proudly as they navigated this new adventure on their own. No matter your role in your child’s college application process, you may be wondering how to be there for them as they make their final decision and transition into the next phase of their lives.

Let’s acknowledge up front that not every child is going to be accepted into their dream school. Sitting with this disappointment can be difficult and confusing for a young person who has channeled their efforts and excitement into this one goal for months. There may also be some young people who were admitted into the colleges of their dreams, but because of financial reasons or changing circumstances, find themselves unable to attend. As a parent, it can be painful to watch your child hurting during a time when they had hoped to be celebrating.

It may be tempting to jump to your child’s defense and search desperately for explanations as to why they were rejected, or to come up with a strategy to keep their dream alive. While those reactions are reasonable, they may not help to alleviate the negative feelings your child is experiencing right now. It’s important to tap into your instincts to be supportive and encouraging when speaking to your teen about the schools to which they were rejected. It’s not easy to sit with rejection and disappointment, but it can be powerful.

These suggestions aren’t one-size-fits-all. Take pieces that work for you, try them out, and adjust as you go. If nothing speaks to the way you feel comfortable supporting your child, that’s also fine; use this discussion as a launching pad for your own ideas. As you know, parenting doesn’t happen on a straightforward path with built in directions that work for everyone, and neither does growing up.

1. Meet them where they’re at.

Sounds cheesy, right? I hear you, but this one is important.

You’ve probably had your own share of challenges and setbacks, and the fact that you’re reading this post tells me that you made it through those experiences. You know that your child is capable of achieving their dreams and finding success, but they may not be ready to hear that right now. So check in with them. How are they feeling? What do they think about the option (or options) that they have? Do they want to talk about it?

If they set boundaries on the topic (“I’m fine dad – I’m going to college, it’s not a big deal”; “Please, just leave me alone!”) respect those boundaries. Let them know that you’ll be there for them whenever they’re ready.

If they share with you how they’re feeling (ecstatic, scared, nervous, brokenhearted), validate those feelings and let them be. No matter how your child is processing these results right now, it’s important to show them that their feelings – no matter what they are – are OK. There is no one right or wrong way to react in these situations (or in any situation, quite frankly). Your child needs to see and hear from you that it’s alright for them to just be right now. If you can validate their feelings now, they may be able to laugh or cry or worry without questioning the legitimacy of their feelings in the future.

Emotions are natural and they happen across a broad spectrum. Do your best not to force your child to move on or “cheer up” if they’re not ready to, or to mull over the seriousness of this decision if they’re blissed out on their accomplishment. Meet them where they’re at and let their reactions guide your own next steps.

2. Be their biggest cheerleader, and share your pom-poms.

No matter what letters your kid got in the mail, I know that you must be feeling proud with a capital “P” right now. Share that pride with them! Be vocal and insistent in your joy over their accomplishments, and look for ways to help them feel that same pride in themselves.

Your children should be proud of themselves! They’re going to college! But let’s be honest: it’s not the easiest or most likely thing for a teenager to sit back and say, “wow, I worked so hard for this, I deserve to congratulate myself.” This is another opportunity for you to show your child not only how much you support them, but how they can start to support themselves.

Whatever your mode of expressing pride – maybe it’s through high-fives or balloons or favorite meals – now’s the time. Your child just accomplished something huge, and you want them to know that you’re on their team no matter what.

3. Give them the floor to speak.

When one of your adult friends shares their opinions with you, reveals their fears to you, or asks for your insight, you’re probably going to approach that conversation with an open heart and a sense of equality. Give your child that same respect when they’re ready to talk with you about their college decision-making process.

As a parent, you want to protect your child and to help them make decisions that you feel are in their best interest. That’s a great instinct! Are there ways for you to bring your child (now truly a young adult) into that conversation with you? How can you help them consider their options while also respecting their decisions and voicing your own concerns?

These conversations will look different for every family. I’m not suggesting that you start acting like your child’s buddy rather than their parent, but that you strive to enter this discussion – and perhaps future discussions – just as though you were speaking with any other adult. You’ve helped your child become the person they are today: a soon-to-be high school graduate and college freshman, an informed member of society, and a human being deserving of every opportunity to develop into the person they dream of becoming. If you can, hold these thoughts at the forefront when discussing challenges like these with your child.

Having the opportunity to be heard as adults, as equals with valuable insights into their own worlds, can carry incredible weight for young people.

4. Let them know that they have a safety net.

There are a lot of important steps to take and choices to make once your child has picked their school. What dorm do they want to live in? Which orientation should they sign up for? Do they want to start classes this summer, or wait until the semester starts? And what about picking classes? Find a way to let your child know that you’re there to help them with these decisions, but encourage them to start considering what they want and are looking for out of the next few years at school.

Of course, there may be decisions that you should be making together. Anything involving finances comes to mind. Set your boundaries and be honest with your child regarding the decisions that they need to check in with you about so that you can both move forward with an understanding of how this process will go. There will be many times over the course of your child’s college career when they’ll have to make tough choices (about relationships, their education, their goals). It can be huge for a young person to know that they can turn to their parents (no matter how old they get) when they need to.

No matter the outcome of your child’s application process, they’re sure to need some support from you right now. High school seniors are about to make one of their first (if not the first) adult decisions. At the same time, they’re moving on from a period in their lives that is often described as meaning everything to them. In your own family, your relationship with your teen is about to change or is already changing. This can be a wonderful opportunity to experiment with new ways of communicating, and to model not only positive coping skills, but positive relationships for your teen as adulthood begins.


This article was originally posted on Psychology Today by Kailey Hockridge.

Featured photo courtesy of Baim Hanif – CC 2.0

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