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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Big feelings, and the big behaviour that comes from big feelings, are a sign of a distressed nervous system. Think of this like a burning building. The behaviour is the smoke. The fire is a distressed nervous system. It’s so tempting to respond directly to the behaviour (the smoke), but by doing this, we ignore the fire. Their behaviour and feelings in that moment are a call for support - for us to help that distressed brain and body find the way home. 

The most powerful language for any nervous system is another nervous system. They will catch our distress (as we will catch theirs) but they will also catch our calm. It can be tempting to move them to independence on this too quickly, but it just doesn’t work this way. Children can only learn to self-regulate with lots (and lots and lots) of experience co-regulating. 

This isn’t something that can be taught. It’s something that has to be experienced over and over. It’s like so many things - driving a car, playing the piano - we can talk all we want about ‘how’ but it’s not until we ‘do’ over and over that we get better at it. 

Self-regulation works the same way. It’s not until children have repeated experiences with an adult bringing them back to calm, that they develop the neural pathways to come back to calm on their own. 

An important part of this is making sure we are guiding that nervous system with tender, gentle hands and a steady heart. This is where our own self-regulation becomes important. Our nervous systems speak to each other every moment of every day. When our children or teens are distressed, we will start to feel that distress. It becomes a loop. We feel what they feel, they feel what we feel. Our own capacity to self-regulate is the circuit breaker. 

This can be so tough, but it can happen in microbreaks. A few strong steady breaths can calm our own nervous system, which we can then use to calm theirs. Breathe, and be with. It’s that simple, but so tough to do some days. When they come back to calm, then have those transformational chats - What happened? What can make it easier next time?

Who you are in the moment will always be more important than what you do.
How we are with them, when they are their everyday selves and when they aren’t so adorable, will build their view of three things: the world, its people, and themselves. This will then inform how they respond to the world and how they build their very important space in it. 

Will it be a loving, warm, open-hearted space with lots of doors for them to throw open to the people and experiences that are right for them? Or will it be a space with solid, too high walls that close out too many of the people and experiences that would nourish them.

They will learn from what we do with them and to them, for better or worse. We don’t teach them that the world is safe for them to reach into - we show them. We don’t teach them to be kind, respectful, and compassionate. We show them. We don’t teach them that they matter, and that other people matter, and that their voices and their opinions matter. We show them. We don’t teach them that they are little joy mongers who light up the world. We show them. 

But we have to be radically kind with ourselves too. None of this is about perfection. Parenting is hard, and days will be hard, and on too many of those days we’ll be hard too. That’s okay. We’ll say things we shouldn’t say and do things we shouldn’t do. We’re human too. Let’s not put pressure on our kiddos to be perfect by pretending that we are. As long as we repair the ruptures as soon as we can, and bathe them in love and the warmth of us as much as we can, they will be okay.

This also isn’t about not having boundaries. We need to be the guardians of their world and show them where the edges are. But in the guarding of those boundaries we can be strong and loving, strong and gentle. We can love them, and redirect their behaviour.

It’s when we own our stuff(ups) and when we let them see us fall and rise with strength, integrity, and compassion, and when we hold them gently through the mess of it all, that they learn about humility, and vulnerability, and the importance of holding bruised hearts with tender hands. It’s not about perfection, it’s about consistency, and honesty, and the way we respond to them the most.♥️

#parenting #mindfulparenting
Anxiety and courage always exist together. It can be no other way. Anxiety is a call to courage. It means you're about to do something brave, so when there is one the other will be there too. Their courage might feel so small and be whisper quiet, but it will always be there and always ready to show up when they need it to.
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But courage doesn’t always feel like courage, and it won't always show itself as a readiness. Instead, it might show as a rising - from fear, from uncertainty, from anger. None of these mean an absence of courage. They are the making of space, and the opportunity for courage to rise.
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When the noise from anxiety is loud and obtuse, we’ll have to gently add our voices to usher their courage into the light. We can do this speaking of it and to it, and by shifting the focus from their anxiety to their brave. The one we focus on is ultimately what will become powerful. It will be the one we energise. Anxiety will already have their focus, so we’ll need to make sure their courage has ours.
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But we have to speak to their fear as well, in a way that makes space for it to be held and soothed, with strength. Their fear has an important job to do - to recruit the support of someone who can help them feel safe. Only when their fear has been heard will it rest and make way for their brave.
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What does this look like? Tell them their stories of brave, but acknowledge the fear that made it tough. Stories help them process their emotional experiences in a safe way. It brings word to the feelings and helps those big feelings make sense and find containment. ‘You were really worried about that exam weren’t you. You couldn’t get to sleep the night before. It was tough going to school but you got up, you got dressed, you ... and you did it. Then you ...’
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In the moment, speak to their brave by first acknowledging their need to flee (or fight), then tell them what you know to be true - ‘This feels scary for you doesn’t it. I know you want to run. It makes so much sense that you would want to do that. I also know you can do hard things. My darling, I know it with everything in me.’
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#positiveparenting #parenting #childanxiety #anxietyinchildren #mindfulpare
Separation anxiety has an important job to do - it’s designed to keep children safe by driving them to stay close to their important adults. Gosh it can feel brutal sometimes though.

Whenever there is separation from an attachment person there will be anxiety unless there are two things: attachment with another trusted, loving adult; and a felt sense of you holding on, even when you aren't beside them. Putting these in place will help soften anxiety.

As long as children are are in the loving care of a trusted adult, there's no need to avoid separation. We'll need to remind ourselves of this so we can hold on to ourselves when our own anxiety is rising in response to theirs. 

If separation is the problem, connection has to be the solution. The connection can be with any loving adult, but it's more than an adult being present. It needs an adult who, through their strong, warm, loving presence, shows the child their abundant intention to care for that child, and their joy in doing so. This can be helped along by showing that you trust the adult to love that child big in our absence. 'I know [important adult] loves you and is going to take such good care of you.'

To help your young one feel held on to by you, even in absence, let them know you'll be thinking of them and can't wait to see them. Bolster this by giving them something of yours to hold while you're gone - a scarf, a note - anything that will be felt as 'you'.

They know you are the one who makes sure their world is safe, so they’ll be looking to you for signs of safety: 'Do you think we'll be okay if we aren't together?' First, validate: 'You really want to stay with me, don't you. I wish I could stay with you too! It's hard being away from your special people isn't it.' Then, be their brave. Let it be big enough to wrap around them so they can rest in the safety and strength of it: 'I know you can do this, love. We can do hard things can't we.'

Part of growing up brave is learning that the presence of anxiety doesn't always mean something is wrong. Sometimes it means they are on the edge of brave - and being away from you for a while counts as brave.
Even the most loving, emotionally available adult might feel frustration, anger, helplessness or distress in response to a child’s big feelings. This is how it’s meant to work. 

Their distress (fight/flight) will raise distress in us. The purpose is to move us to protect or support or them, but of course it doesn’t always work this way. When their big feelings recruit ours it can drive us more to fight (anger, blame), or to flee (avoid, ignore, separate them from us) which can steal our capacity to support them. It will happen to all of us from time to time. 

Kids and teens can’t learn to manage big feelings on their own until they’ve done it plenty of times with a calm, loving adult. This is where co-regulation comes in. It helps build the vital neural pathways between big feelings and calm. They can’t build those pathways on their own. 

It’s like driving a car. We can tell them how to drive as much as we like, but ‘talking about’ won’t mean they’re ready to hit the road by themselves. Instead we sit with them in the front seat for hours, driving ‘with’ until they can do it on their own. Feelings are the same. We feel ‘with’, over and over, until they can do it on their own. 

What can help is pausing for a moment to see the behaviour for what it is - a call for support. It’s NOT bad behaviour or bad parenting. It’s not that.

Our own feelings can give us a clue to what our children are feeling. It’s a normal, healthy, adaptive way for them to share an emotional load they weren’t meant to carry on their own. Self-regulation makes space for us to hold those feelings with them until those big feelings ease. 

Self-regulation can happen in micro moments. First, see the feelings or behaviour for what it is - a call for support. Then breathe. This will calm your nervous system, so you can calm theirs. In the same way we will catch their distress, they will also catch ours - but they can also catch our calm. Breathe, validate, and be ‘with’. And you don’t need to do more than that.

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