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 shows up to check that you’re okay, not to tell you that you’re not. It’s your brain’s way of saying, ‘Not sure - there might be some trouble here, but there might not be, but just in case you should be ready for it if it comes, which it might not – but just in case you’d better be ready to run or fight – but it might be totally fine.’ Brains can be so confusing sometimes! 

You have a brain that is strong, healthy and hardworking. It’s magnificent and it’s doing a brilliant job of doing exactly what brains are meant to do – keep you alive. 

Your brain is fabulous, but it needs you to be the boss. Here’s how. When you feel anxious, ask yourself two questions:

- ‘Do I feel like this because I’m in danger or because there’s something brave or important I need to do?’

- Then, ‘Is this a time for me to be safe (sometimes it might be) or is this a time for me to be brave?

And remember, you will always have ‘brave’ in you, and anxiety doesn’t change that a bit.♥️

#positiveparenting #mindfulparenting #parenting #childanxiety #heywarrior #heywarriorbook
The temptation to fix their big feelings can be seismic. Often this is connected to needing to ease our own discomfort at their discomfort, which is so very normal.

Big feelings in them are meant to raise (sometimes big) feelings in us. This is all a healthy part of the attachment system. It happens to mobilise us to respond to their distress, or to protect them if their distress is in response to danger.

Emotion is energy in motion. We don’t want to bury it, stop it, smother it, and we don’t need to fix it. What we need to do is make a safe passage for it to move through them. 

Think of emotion like a river. Our job is to hold the ground strong and steady at the banks so the river can move safely, without bursting the banks.

However hard that river is racing, they need to know we can be with the river (the emotion), be with them, and handle it. This might feel or look like you aren’t doing anything, but actually it’s everything.

The safety that comes from you being the strong, steady presence that can lovingly contain their big feelings will let the emotional energy move through them and bring the brain back to calm.

Eventually, when they have lots of experience of us doing this with them, they will learn to do it for themselves, but that will take time and experience. The experience happens every time you hold them steady through their feelings. 

This doesn’t mean ignoring big behaviour. For them, this can feel too much like bursting through the banks, which won’t feel safe. Sometimes you might need to recall the boundary and let them know where the edges are, while at the same time letting them see that you can handle the big of the feeling. Its about loving and leading all at once. ‘It’s okay to be angry. It’s not okay to use those words at me.’

Ultimately, big feelings are a call for support. Sometimes support looks like breathing and being with. Sometimes it looks like showing them you can hold the boundary, even when they feel like they’re about to burst through it. And if they’re using spicy words to get us to back off, it might look like respecting their need for space but staying in reaching distance, ‘Ok, I’m right here whenever you need.’♥️
We all need certain things to feel safe enough to put ourselves into the world. Kids with anxiety have magic in them, every one of them, but until they have a felt sense of safety, it will often stay hidden.

‘Safety’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, but about what they feel. At school, they might have the safest, most loving teacher in the safest, most loving school. This doesn’t mean they will feel enough relational safety straight away that will make it easier for them to do hard things. They can still do those hard things, but those things are going to feel bigger for a while. This is where they’ll need us and their other anchor adult to be patient, gentle, and persistent.

Children aren’t meant to feel safe with and take the lead from every adult. It’s not the adult’s role that makes the difference, but their relationship with the child.

Children are no different to us. Just because an adult tells them they’ll be okay, it doesn’t mean they’ll feel it or believe it. What they need is to be given time to actually experience the person as being safe, supportive and ready to catch them.

Relationship is key. The need for safety through relationship isn’t an ‘anxiety thing’. It’s a ‘human thing’. When we feel closer to the people around us, we can rise above the mountains in our way. When we feel someone really caring about us, we’re more likely to open up to their influence
and learn from them.

But we have to be patient. Even for teachers with big hearts and who undertand the importance of attachment relationships, it can take time.

Any adult at school can play an important part in helping a child feel safe – as long as that adult is loving, warm, and willing to do the work to connect with that child. It might be the librarian, the counsellor, the office person, a teacher aide. It doesn’t matter who, as long as it is someone who can be available for that child at dropoff or when feelings get big during the day and do little check-ins along the way.

A teacher, or any important adult can make a lasting difference by asking, ‘How do I build my relationship with this child so s/he trusts me when I say, ‘I’ve got you, and I know you can do this.’♥️
There is a beautiful ‘everythingness’ in all of us. The key to living well is being able to live flexibly and more deliberately between our edges.

So often though, the ‘shoulds’ and ‘should nots’ we inhale in childhood and as we grow, lead us to abandon some of those precious, needed parts of us. ‘Don’t be angry/ selfish/ shy/ rude. She’s not a maths person.’ ‘Don’t argue.’ Ugh.

Let’s make sure our children don’t cancel parts of themselves. They are everything, but not always all at once. They can be anxious and brave. Strong and soft. Angry and calm. Big and small. Generous and self-ish. Some things they will find hard, and they can do hard things. None of these are wrong ways to be. What trips us up is rigidity, and only ever responding from one side of who we can be.

We all have extremes or parts we favour. This is what makes up the beautiful, complex, individuality of us. We don’t need to change this, but the more we can open our children to the possibility in them, the more options they will have in responding to challenges, the everyday, people, and the world. 

We can do this by validating their ‘is’ without needing them to be different for a while in the moment, and also speaking to the other parts of them when we can. 

‘Yes maths is hard, and I know you can do hard things. How can I help?’

‘I can see how anxious you feel. That’s so okay. I also know you have brave in you.’

‘I love your ‘big’ and the way you make us laugh. You light up the room.’ And then at other times: ‘It can be hard being in a room with new people can’t it. It’s okay to be quiet. I could see you taking it all in.’

‘It’s okay to want space from people. Sometimes you just want your things and yourself for yourself, hey. I feel like that sometimes too. I love the way you know when you need this.’ And then at other times, ‘You looked like you loved being with your friends today. I loved watching you share.’

The are everything, but not all at once. Our job is to help them live flexibly and more deliberately between the full range of who they are and who they can be: anxious/brave; kind/self-ish; focussed inward/outward; angry/calm. This will take time, and there is no hurry.♥️

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