Preparing Your Teen For College Without Instilling Worry & Anxiety

How Do I Prepare My Teen For College?

As parents we naturally want what’s best for our kids. From happy little tots to teens that are (relatively) stable and receiving good grades, our whole focus is on setting them up for the future. However, the urgency we feel for them to have better lives than we had, secure futures, can inadvertently fill them with dread of failure or anxiety.

Sometimes, though, it can be difficult to get our son or daughter motivated about going to college. Not every teen is enthused about at least four more years of school. Many teens see high school as a marathon and graduation is the finish line. If we push, it’s their natural tendency to push back.

If your dealing with the question, ‘How do I prepare my teen for college?’ here is a guide for how to  effectively encourage and prepare your teen, without creating anxiety or worry. 

College is Like a Pizza!

One thing to keep in mind is that it’s easy to be overwhelmed by the entire thing. This is their entire future, after all! A very common response to stress is lethargy. It may seem so huge and beyond them, that there’s no point in even trying.

When discussing college with your teen, it’s best to not focus on the entire college process as a whole, but rather bite-sized pieces. One thing I say to relate to my children whenever there is a large project like this is asking them “How do you eat a pizza?” By now they know the answer by rote, and with an eye roll and a smile they answer, “One slice at a time.”

Why They Should Be Excited

When talking to your teen about college, it’s important to hit the high notes early and often. A good way to get them excited is to remind them of all the reasons college is different than high school. Instead of focusing on the schoolwork they’ll have to do, try reminding them of these points:

  • It’s a chance at a fresh start;
  • It will be a different experience to high school;
  • They will have new freedom.

It’s easy to get stuck in a rut in high school. The same schoolmates for the last four or more years. The same classes. The same afterschool activities. The same town. College is a chance to change that. They’ll be able to try new things, see new places.

Professors are far different than high school teachers. They have their own way of doing things giving the entire classroom experience a different feeling. On top of that, your teen will be living in a dorm and out on their own. It’s a chance to meet new people, make new friends, and finally discover what it’s like to be (somewhat) all on their own.

Not just talking about staying out without a curfew and going to parties. This includes making their own school schedule, choosing what classes they want to take, and really making choices for their own future.

How do I Prepare My Teen for College?

When it comes to talking to teens, it can be hard to hit the right angle. Too forceful, and you just produce pushback. Too soft, and you fail to provide the proper amount of motivation to get them going.

When talking to them about college, here are a few things you can do to help keep the lines of communication open and smooth.

  1. Start the conversation early.

    Even junior year isn’t too soon to start getting their heads working. There’s a lot to be done, and the sooner your teen starts, the easier their time will be as their senior year progresses. Ask around and help them collect SAT/ACT study guides. They don’t need to be brand new to be useful, and you can save a lot of money with used copies and checking for survival guides online. It would also be helpful for them to get an appropriate email address, as they’ve likely been using the same one since grade school. Use that email when signing up for college and FAFSA research.

  2. Help them research colleges and encourage their input.

    This is their choice, so help, but put the power in their hands. Responsibility brings ownership, which helps make their excitement theirs instead of just feeding off of yours. A fun way to start is with a few Google searches. Have your teen make up a list of things they feel their ideal college should have, and narrow the list down to a top five list. Then just look for the word “college” and those keywords and see what comes up. If anything looks good, do some digging.

  3. Take away the mystery of college.

    Second to getting overwhelmed, another reason your teen may be delaying the process is fear of the unknown. One thing you can do to help assuage that fear is by having them talk to people. Cousins, family, or anyone already planning for or that have started college. The more information they get from people currently “in the know” will go a long way in helping them feel more secure about the whole thing.

What Not to Do

It can be almost too easy to take a wrong turn in your encouragement, no matter how well intentioned you may have been. Here’s a few things to avoid at all costs. (Trust me, it never works out the way you hope).

  1. Don’t try to use the junk mail colleges send to build excitement.

    As soon as your kid gets old enough, somehow obscure colleges from all over the places get your information and start mailing you stuff. While it can seem like a good idea to try and use it to get your teen excited, the fact is all of this stuff is coming completely unsolicited. Your kid has no interest in any of these colleges, and if they’re anything your teen would be interested in, chances are they’ll discover them through their own research.

  2. Don’t talk about your own college experience.

    If asked, that’s one thing, but don’t continue on about how you got into a college with little effort. Truth is, times have changed. A college that was easy for you to get into when you were young could be near impossible now, and if they fail to be accepted, it can go a long way in discouraging them. Besides, this isn’t about you, it’s about your child. This is their journey.

  3. Don’t share cautionary tales from friends

    I don’t know in what situation this would ever be a good idea, but it still happens. I can’t be more serious: don’t tell your teen about your friend’s kid that applied to a bunch of schools and wasn’t accepted. How is this going to help build excitement or encourage them?

  4. Don’t try to sell the closest college

    Your teen is like a manipulation bloodhound. They can see right through it, and your desperation to keep them close will only make them want to get that much farther away. No matter how well intentioned, just keep that little bit of information to yourself. If they want to attend that college, great, but let it be their choice.

  5. Don’t choose a favorite college out of their options

    Again, this is about your kid, not you. It’s nice to offer opinions and mention ones that you think would be good–your child values your input–but don’t expect your favorite to be theirs.

  6. Treat it as a Marathon, Not a Sprint

    When it comes to building excitement and avoiding anxiety, the key is knowledge. Fear comes from the unknown. Stress from having too much to do and not feeling your capable of accomplishing it. By taking it one step at a time, you can help your teen not only find an amazing college, but keep them excited and well-prepared to take this next step in their life’s journey.


About the Author: Tyler Jacobson

Tyler Jacobson is a father, husband, and freelancer, with experience in writing and outreach for parent and organizations that help troubled teen boys. Tyler has offered humor and research backed advice to readers on parenting tactics, problems in education, issues with social media, mental disorders, addiction, and troublesome issues raising teen boys. Connect with Tyler on: Twitter | LinkedIn

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Michelle R

I disagree with the advice about ignoring mailed information from colleges. In my experience it helped my students realize that the time frame is real! It’s time to start thinking about colleges, because they’re thinking about you. Also, it helped my student realize how many schools are out there, not just the State schools. There are over 3000 colleges and universities in the US alone. You can get a lot of scholarship $ by going to smaller, lesser known schools. Finally, those mailings from colleges are coming from the registrations for SAT and ACT. It’s not a mystery, it’s on their website.

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Anxiety is a sign that the brain has registered threat and is mobilising the body to get to safety. One of the ways it does this is by organising the body for movement - to fight the danger or flee the danger. 

If there is no need or no opportunity for movement, that fight or flight fuel will still be looking for expression. This can come out as wriggly, fidgety, hyperactive behaviour. This is why any of us might pace or struggle to sit still when we’re anxious. 

If kids or teens are bouncing around, wriggling in their chairs, or having trouble sitting still, it could be anxiety. Remember with anxiety, it’s not about what is actually safe but about what the brain perceives. New or challenging work, doing something unfamiliar, too much going on, a tired or hungry body, anything that comes with any chance of judgement, failure, humiliation can all throw the brain into fight or flight.

When this happens, the body might feel busy, activated, restless. This in itself can drive even more anxiety in kids or teens. Any of us can struggle when we don’t feel comfortable in our own bodies. 

Anxiety is energy with nowhere to go. To move through anxiety, give the energy somewhere to go - a fast walk, a run, a whole-body shake, hula hooping, kicking a ball - any movement that spends the energy will help bring the brain and body back to calm.♥️
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#parenting #anxietyinkids #childanxiety #parenting #parent
This is not bad behaviour. It’s big behaviour a from a brain that has registered threat and is working hard to feel safe again. 

‘Threat’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, but about what the brain perceives. The brain can perceive threat when there is any chance missing out on or messing up something important, anything that feels unfamiliar, hard, or challenging, feeling misunderstood, thinking you might be angry or disappointed with them, being separated from you, being hungry or tired, anything that pushes against their sensory needs - so many things. 

During anxiety, the amygdala in the brain is switched to high volume, so other big feelings will be too. This might look like tears, sadness, or anger. 

Big feelings have a good reason for being there. The amygdala has the very important job of keeping us safe, and it does this beautifully, but not always with grace. One of the ways the amygdala keeps us safe is by calling on big feelings to recruit social support. When big feelings happen, people notice. They might not always notice the way we want to be noticed, but we are noticed. This increases our chances of safety. 

Of course, kids and teens still need our guidance and leadership and the conversations that grow them, but not during the emotional storm. They just won’t hear you anyway because their brain is too busy trying to get back to safety. In that moment, they don’t want to be fixed or ‘grown’. They want to feel seen, safe and heard. 

During the storm, preserve your connection with them as much as you can. You might not always be able to do this, and that’s okay. None of this is about perfection. If you have a rupture, repair it as soon as you can. Then, when their brains and bodies come back to calm, this is the time for the conversations that will grow them. 

Rather than, ‘What consequences do they need to do better?’, shift to, ‘What support do they need to do better?’ The greatest support will come from you in a way they can receive: ‘What happened?’ ‘What can you do differently next time?’ ‘You’re the most wonderful kid and I know you didn’t want this to happen. How can you put things right? Do you need my help with that?’♥️
Big behaviour is a sign of a nervous system in distress. Before anything, that vulnerable nervous system needs to be brought back home to felt safety. 

This will happen most powerfully with relationship and connection. Breathe and be with. Let them know you get it. This can happen with words or nonverbals. It’s about feeling what they feel, but staying regulated.

If they want space, give them space but stay in emotional proximity, ‘Ok I’m just going to stay over here. I’m right here if you need.’

If they’re using spicy words to make sure there is no confusion about how they feel about you right now, flag the behaviour, then make your intent clear, ‘I know how upset you are and I want to understand more about what’s happening for you. I’m not going to do this while you’re speaking to me like this. You can still be mad, but you need to be respectful. I’m here for you.’

Think of how you would respond if a friend was telling you about something that upset her. You wouldn’t tell her to calm down, or try to fix her (she’s not broken), or talk to her about her behaviour. You would just be there. You would ‘drop an anchor’ and steady those rough seas around her until she feels okay enough again. Along the way you would be doing things that let her know your intent to support her. You’d do this with you facial expressions, your voice, your body, your posture. You’d feel her feels, and she’d feel you ‘getting her’. It’s about letting her know that you understand what she’s feeling, even if you don’t understand why (or agree with why). 

It’s the same for our children. As their important big people, they also need leadership. The time for this is after the storm has passed, when their brains and bodies feel safe and calm. Because of your relationship, connection and their felt sense of safety, you will have access to their ‘thinking brain’. This is the time for those meaningful conversations: 
- ‘What happened?’
- ‘What did I do that helped/ didn’t help?’
- ‘What can you do differently next time?’
- ‘You’re a great kid and I know you didn’t want this to happen, but here we are. What can you do to put things right? Do you need my help with that?’♥️
As children grow, and especially by adolescence, we have the illusion of control but whether or not we have any real influence will be up to them. The temptation to control our children will always come from a place of love. Fear will likely have a heavy hand in there too. When they fall, we’ll feel it. Sometimes it will feel like an ache in our core. Sometimes it will feel like failure or guilt, or anger. We might wish we could have stopped them, pushed a little harder, warned a little bigger, stood a little closer. We’re parents and we’re human and it’s what this parenting thing does. It makes fear and anxiety billow around us like lost smoke, too easily.

Remember, they want you to be proud of them, and they want to do the right thing. When they feel your curiosity over judgement, and the safety of you over shame, it will be easier for them to open up to you. Nobody will guide them better than you because nobody will care more about where they land. They know this, but the magic happens when they also know that you are safe and that you will hold them, their needs, their opinions and feelings with strong, gentle, loving hands, no matter what.♥️
Anger is the ‘fight’ part of the fight or flight response. It has important work to do. Anger never exists on its own. It exists to hold other more vulnerable emotions in a way that feels safer. It’s sometimes feels easier, safer, more acceptable, stronger to feel the ‘big’ that comes with anger, than the vulnerability that comes with anxiety, sadness, loneliness. This isn’t deliberate. It’s just another way our bodies and brains try to keep us safe. 

The problem isn’t the anger. The problem is the behaviour that can come with the anger. Let there be no limits on thoughts and feelings, only behaviour. When children are angry, as long as they are safe and others are safe, we don’t need to fix their anger. They aren’t broken. Instead, drop the anchor: as much as you can - and this won’t always be easy - be a calm, steadying, loving presence to help bring their nervous systems back home to calm. 

Then, when they are truly calm, and with love and leadership, have the conversations that will grow them - 
- What happened? 
- What can you do differently next time?
- You’re a really great kid. I know you didn’t want this to happen but here we are. How can you make things right. Would you like some ideas? Do you need some help with that?
- What did I do that helped? What did I do that didn’t help? Is there something that might feel more helpful next time?

When their behaviour falls short of ‘adorable’, rather than asking ‘What consequences they need to do better?’ let the question be, ‘What support do they need to do better.’ Often, the biggest support will be a conversation with you, and that will be enough.♥️
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#parenting #positiveparenting #mindfulparenting #anxietyinkids

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