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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Behaviour is never from ‘bad’. It’s from ‘big’. Big hungry, big tired, big disconnection, big missing, big ‘too much right now’. The reason our responses might not work can often be because we’ve misread the story, or we’ve missed an important piece of it. Their story might be about now, today, yesterday, or any of the yesterdays before now. 

Our job isn’t to fix them. They aren’t broken. Our job is to understand them. Only then can we steer our response in the right direction. Otherwise we’re throwing darts at the wrong target - behaviour, instead of the need behind the behaviour. 

Watch, listen, breathe and be with. Feel what they feel. This will help them feel you with them. We all feel safer and calmer when we feel our people beside us - not judging or hurrying or questioning. What don’t you know, that they need you to know?♥️
We all have first up needs. The difference between adults and children is that we can delay the meeting of these needs for a bit longer than children - but we still need them met. 

The first most important question the brain needs answered is, ‘Is my body safe?’ - Am I free from threat, hunger, exhaustion, pain? This is usually an easier one to take care of or to recognise when it might need some attention. 

The next most important question is, ‘Is my heart safe?’ - Am I loved, noticed, valued, claimed, wanted, welcome? This can be an easy one to overlook, especially in the chaos of the morning. Of course we love them and want them - and sometimes we’ll get distracted, annoyed, frustrated, irritated. None of this changes how much we love and want them - not even for a second. We can feel two things at once - madly in love with them and annoyed/ distracted/ frustrated. Sometimes though, this can leave their ‘Is my heart safe?’ needs a little hungry. They have less capacity than us to delay the meeting of these needs. When these needs are hungry, we’ll be more likely to see big feelings or big behaviour. 

The more you can fill their love tanks at the start of the day, the more they’ll be able to handle the bumps. This doesn’t have to be big. It just has to be enough. It might look like having a cuddle, reading a story, having a chat, sitting with them while they have breakfast or while they pat the dog, touching their back when they walk past, telling them you love them.

All brains need to feel loved and wanted, and as though they aren’t a nuisance, but sometimes they’ll need to feel it more. The more their felt sense of relational safety is met, the more they’ll be able to then focus on ‘thinking brain’ things, such as planning, making good decisions, co-operating, behaving. 

(And if this today was a bumpy one, that’s okay. Those days are going to happen. If most of the time their love tanks are full, they’ll handle when it drops a little. Just top it up when you can. And don’t forget to top yours up too. Be kind to yourself. You deserve it as much as they do.)♥️
Things will always go wrong - a bad decision, a good decision with a bad outcome, a dilemma, wanting something that comes with risk. 

Often, the ‘right thing’ lives somewhere in the very blurry bounds of the grey. Sometimes it will be about what’s right for them. Sometimes what’s right for others. Sometimes it will be about taking a risk, and sometimes the ‘right’ thing just feels wrong right now, or wrong for them. Even as adults, we will often get things wrong. This isn’t because we’re bad, or because we don’t know the right thing from the wrong thing, but because few things are black and white. 

The problem with punishment and harsh consequences is that we remove ourselves as an option for them to turn to next time things end messy, or as a guide before the mess happens. 

Feeling safe in our important relationships is a primary need for all of us humans. That means making sure our relationships are free from judgement, humiliation, shame, separation. If our response to their ‘wrong things’ is to bring all of these things to the table we share with them with them, of course they’ll do anything to avoid it. This isn’t about lying or secrecy. It’s about maintaining relational ‘safety’, or closeness.

Kids want to do the right thing. They want us to love and accept them. But they’re going to get things wrong sometimes. When they do, our response will teach them either that we are safe for them to come to no matter what, or that we aren’t. 

So what do we do when things go wrong? Embrace them, reject the behaviour:

‘I love that you’ve been honest with me. That means everything to me. I know you didn’t expect things to end up like this, but here we are. Let’s talk about what’s happened and what can be different next time.’

Or, ‘Something must have made this (wrong thing) feel like the right thing to do, otherwise you wouldn’t have done it. We all do that sometimes. What do you think it was that was for you?’

Or, ‘I know you know lying isn’t okay. What made you feel like you couldn’t tell me the truth? How can we build the trust again. Let’s talk about how to do that.’

You will always be their greatest guide, but you can only be that if they let you.♥️
Whenever there is a call to courage, there will be anxiety - every time. That’s what makes it brave. This is why challenging things, brave things, important things will often drive anxiety. 

At these times - when they are safe, but doing something hard - the feelings that come with anxiety will be enough to drive avoidance. When it is avoidance of a threat, that’s important. That’s anxiety doing it’s job. But when the avoidance is in response to things that are important, brave, meaningful, that avoidance only serves to confirm the deficiency story. This is when we want to support them to take tiny steps towards that brave thing. It doesn’t have to happen all at once.l and it doesn’t matter how long it takes. Brave is about being able to handle the discomfort of anxiety enough to do the important, challenging thing. It’s built in tiny steps, one after the other. 

We don’t have to get rid of their anxiety and neither do they. They can feel anxious, and do brave. At these times (safe, but scary) they need us to take a posture of validation and confidence. ‘I believe you, and I believe in you.’ ‘I know this feels big, and I know you can handle it.’ 

What we’re saying is we know they can handle the discomfort of anxiety. They don’t have to handle it well, and they don’t have to handle it for too long. Handling it is handling it, and that’s the substance of ‘brave’. 

Being brave isn’t about doing the brave thing, but about being able to handle the discomfort of the anxiety that comes with that. And if they’ve done that today, at all, or for a moment longer than yesterday, then they’ve been brave today. It doesn’t matter how messy it was or how small it was. Let them see their brave through your eyes.‘That was big for you wasn’t it. And you did it. You felt anxious, and you stayed with it. That’s what being brave is all about.’♥️
A relationally unsafe (emotionally unsafe) environment can cause as much breakage as as a physically unsafe one. 

The brain’s priority will always be safety, so if a person or environment doesn’t feel emotionally safe, we might see big behaviour, avoidance, or reduced learning. In this case, it isn’t the child that’s broken. It’s the environment.

But here’s the thing, just because a child doesn’t feel safe, doesn’t mean the person or environment isn’t safe. What it means is that there aren’t enough signals of safety - yet, and there’s a little more work to do to build this. ‘Safety’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, it’s about what the brain perceives. Children might have the safest, warmest, most loving adult in front of them, but that doesn’t mean they’ll feel safe. This is when we have to look at how we might extend bigger cues of warmth, welcome, inclusiveness, and what we can do (or what roles or responsibilities can we give them) to help them feel valued and needed. This might take time, and that’s okay. Children aren’t meant to feel safe with every adult in front of them, so sometimes what they need most is our patience and understanding as we continue to build this. 

This is the way it works for all of us, everywhere. None of us will be able to give our best or do our best if we don’t feel welcome, liked, valued, and free from hostility, humiliation or judgement. 

This is especially important for our schools. A brain that doesn’t feel safe can’t learn. For schools to be places of learning, they first have to be places of relationship. Before we focus too sharply on learning support and behaviour management, we first have to focus on felt sense of safety support. The most powerful way to do this is through relationship. Teachers who do this are magic-makers. They show a phenomenal capacity to expand a child’s capacity to learn, calm big behaviour, and open up a child’s world. But relationships take time, and felt safety takes time. The time it takes for this to happen is all part of the process. It’s not a waste of time, it’s the most important use of it.♥️

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