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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When the world feel sunsettled, the ripple can reach the hearts, minds and spirits of kids and teens whether or not they are directly affected. As the important adult in the life of any child or teen, you have a profound capacity to give them what they need to steady their world again.

When their fears are really big, such as the death of a parent, being alone in the world, being separated from people they love, children might put this into something else. 

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If they have been through something big, the truth is that they have been through something frightening AND they are safe, ‘We’re going through some big things and it can be confusing and scary. We’ll get through this. It’s okay to feel scared or sad or angry. Whatever you feel is okay, and I’m here and I love you and we are safe. We can get through anything together.’
I love being a parent. I love it with every part of my being and more than I ever thought I could love anything. Honestly though, nothing has brought out my insecurities or vulnerabilities as much. This is so normal. Confusing, and normal. 

However many children we have, and whatever age they are, each child and each new stage will bring something new for us to learn. It will always be this way. Our children will each do life differently, and along the way we will need to adapt and bend ourselves around their path to light their way as best we can. But we won't do this perfectly, because we can't always know what mountains they'll need to climb, or what dragons they'll need to slay. We won't always know what they’ll need, and we won't always be able to give it. We don't need to. But we'll want to. Sometimes we’ll ache because of this and we’ll blame ourselves for not being ‘enough’. Sometimes we won't. This is the vulnerability that comes with parenting. 

We love them so much, and that never changes, but the way we feel about parenting might change a thousand times before breakfast. Parenting is tough. It's worth every second - every second - but it's tough. Great parents can feel everything, and sometimes it can turn from moment to moment - loving, furious, resentful, compassionate, gentle, tough, joyful, selfish, confused and wise - all of it. Great parents can feel all of it.

Because parenting is pure joy, but not always. We are strong, nurturing, selfless, loving, but not always. Parents aren't perfect. Love isn't perfect. And it was meant to be. We’re raising humans - real ones, with feelings, who don't need to be perfect, and wont  need others to be perfect. Humans who can be kind to others, and to themselves first. But they will learn this from us. Parenting is the role which needs us to be our most human, beautifully imperfect, flawed, vulnerable selves. Let's not judge ourselves for our shortcomings and the imperfections, and the necessary human-ness of us.❤️
The behaviour that comes with separation anxiety is the symptom not the problem. To strengthen children against separation anxiety, we have to respond at the source – the felt sense of separation from you.

Whenever there is separation from an attachment person, there will be always be anxiety unless there is at least one of 2 things: attachment with another trusted, adult; or a felt sense of you holding on to them, even when you aren’t beside them. 

If separation is the problem, connection has to be the solution. The connection can be with any loving adult, but it needs more than an adult being present. Just because there is another adult in the room, doesn’t mean your child will experience a deep sense of safety with that adult. This doesn’t mean the adult isn’t safe - it’s about what the brain perceives, and that brain is looking for a deep, felt sense of safety. This will come from the presence of an adult who, through their strong, loving presence, shows the child their abundant intention to care for them, and their joy in doing so. The joy in caretaking is important. It lets the child rest from seeking the adult’s care because there will be a sense that the adult wants it enough for both.

This can be helped along by showing your young one that you trust the adult to love and care for your child and keep him or her safe in your absence: ‘I know [important adult] loves you and is going to take such good care of you.’ This doesn’t mean children will instantly feel the attachment, but the path towards that will be more illuminated.

To help them feel you holding on even when you aren’t with them, let them know you’ll be thinking of them and can’t wait to be with them again. I used to tell my daughter that every 15 seconds, my mind makes sure it knows where she is. Think of this as ‘taking over’ their worry. ‘You don’t have to worry about you or me because I’m taking care of both of us – every 15 seconds.’ This might also look like giving them something of yours to hold on to while you’re gone – a scarf, a note. You will always be their favourite way to safety, but you can’t be everywhere. Another loving adult or the felt presence of you will help them rest.
Sometimes it can be hard to know what to say or whether to say anything at all. It doesn’t matter if the ‘right’ words aren’t there, because often there no right words. There are also no wrong ones. Often it’s not even about the words. Your presence, your attention, the sound of your voice - they all help to soften the hard edges of the world. Humans have been talking for as long as we’ve had heartbeats and there’s a reason for this. Talking heals. 

It helps to connect the emotional right brain with the logical left. This gives context and shape to feelings and helps them feel contained, which lets those feelings soften. 

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And let them take the lead. Some days they’ll want to talk about ‘it’ and some days they’ll want to talk about anything but. Whether it’s to distract from the mess of it all or to go deeper into it so they can carve their way through the feeling to the calm on the other side, healing will come. So ask, ‘Do you want to talk about ‘it’ or do you want to talk about something else? Because I’m here for both.’ ♥️
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