The Envelope Please: How to Accept College Hits and Misses

When the college admission process is in full swing, you and your kids will be making decisions that can impact their whole lives. So – what should you do if your kid gets the upsetting news that they did not get into their first choice school– or even their second? What if your child didn’t get into college at all or decides simply not to go? Well, take a big breath and think how you can help support your kid through this difficult process.

College rejections can pose a major disappointment for your child. They can also be a huge blow to you. Your initial reaction might be to downplay the importance of the event but instead, you should help your child put it in perspective and give them time to feel bad. You should recognize the fact that, if nothing else, your child is likely embarrassed. It’s hard to face those letters of rejection at the same time their friends are happily flaunting their letters of acceptance. Acknowledge the disappointment, the anger, the embarrassment and let your kid feel the pain. You can’t solve this for them – you can support them and help them find a solution, but you can’t control the outcome.

Dealing with  college rejection – taking it one step at a time.

Providing perspective.

As with any disappointment for you and your child, it’s important to get a grip. First, this isn’t do or die – there are always options. Is there perhaps a second, third or fourth choice school that’s worth looking into?

Embracing the gap.

Maybe your child should consider taking a year off and trying again. Taking time off between high school and college doesn’t mean your child will never go to college. Not to worry. A year off can be instrumental in helping your child focus on their interests and career path. However, parents must help to set expectations, so that the gap year doesn’t turn into a subsidized vacation. There should be goals and a timeline firmly set and adhered to.

Waiting it out.

If your child still wants to hit the books directly after high school, then it would be wise to check out wait lists and transfer policies for their top-choice schools. And, if you haven’t already investigated your local (or non local) community colleges, this is a great time to do that. There are also a variety of high-quality community colleges out there where your student can start their college credits. Remember, college is pricey, and a two-year program may be an affordable option and an opportunity for your student to explore different courses of study. These are a fantastic option for financial reasons, and also for kids who are struggling with the transition for various reasons.

Forward thinking.

Help your student understand that they have choices – even if they aren’t the ones they’d hoped for or anticipated. This decision process should be a priority, but it doesn’t have to suck up every conversation that you have. Shift your thinking to your available choices and what makes them special, not about what you can’t have. Help your child look forward – no use in looking back and blaming themselves now for a low test score or a late paper as the reason for the rejection. The truth is rejection feels awful – but when your child gets through it they will develop resilience and know they can handle it – even if they don’t want to.

Opting out.

And what if your child announces, “I don’t want to go to college?” This can be a harsh wake-up call for parents. We often have dreams for our kids that they may not share. Face it. College might not be for your 18-year old. I would encourage you to have a conversation about it – make it clear what you expect and hope for your child and keep an open mind. Really listen. Is this a passing moment, merely a reaction to the acceptance and rejection letter? Is this fear-driven by the anxiety of the college process or leaving home? You should discuss each and every one of those issues. Try to remain calm as you talk through the decision. And, if you feel it’s being made for the right reasons, support it. And keep in mind, this is not necessarily a final decision. . There are options for kids who aren’t ready for college and they should be researched and seriously considered. College is a huge investment of time and money and should not be pursued, at this time, if the student is not up for the challenge. And who knows? This could lead to a different positive opportunity.

This is your child’s journey – you are there to support and advise. Be a sounding board, acknowledge their excitement, disappointment, curiosity, anxiety, and fear. For your own mental wellbeing, and your child’s, it’s best to embrace this like a new adventure. Whatever the decision, it will represent your child’s next big step into independence – and there are many paths they can take, not just the one you’d envisioned. So I urge you to be flexible, responsive, supportive and to always enjoy the ride.


About the Author: Dr Amy Alamar

Amy Alamar, EdD, has worked in the field of education as a teacher, teacher educator, researcher, parent educator, and education reformer for over fifteen years. In late 2014, Amy wrote Parenting for the Genius: Developing Confidence in Your Parenting through Reflective Practice. The book is a comprehensive guide to becoming the most thoughtful and confident parent possible, with anecdotes and details relating to the guidance and support of children from infant to young adult. In 2016, Amy was an invited guest of Michelle Obama at the White House for a conversation about kids’ health. Amy is also a contributing author to the Disney parenting website, Babble.com and a parent support specialist with Yellowbrick.me. Amy is married and the mother of three children whom she learns from and enjoys each and every day. She is a resident of Avon, CT, where she serves on the board of the Avon Education Foundation, dedicated to promoting and enhancing excellence in education. Find out more about Amy and her work by visiting her website, amyalamar.com.

One Comment

OK Essay

State schools often disadvantage students by writing short and brutally honest evaluations of their strengths and weaknesses. I was a hall tutor at Bristol University some years ago and the references from the private schools were more detailed and (in general) more glowing than those from state schools. At the very least state schools should be writing more detailed, focused and more informed references. They should think about the skill set required by the university and write a reference based on that. A lot of the references I saw were vague and related to whether x was a nice kid or not rather than innate ability and other qualities.

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Whenever the brain registers threat, it organises the body to fight the danger, flee from it, or hide from it. 

Here’s the rub. ‘Threat’ isn’t about what is actually dangerous, but about what the brain perceives. It also isn’t always obvious. For a strong, powerful, magnificent, protective brain, ‘threat’ might count as anything that comes with even the teeniest potential of making a mistake, failure, humiliation, judgement, shame, separation from important adults, exclusion, unfamiliarity, unpredictability. They’re the things that can make any of us feel vulnerable.

Once the brain registers threat the body will respond. This can drive all sorts of behaviour. Some will be obvious and some won’t be. The responses can be ones that make them bigger (aggression, tantrums) or ones that make them smaller (going quiet or still, shrinking, withdrawing). All are attempts to get the body to safety. None are about misbehaviour, misintent, or disrespect. 

One of the ways bodies stay safe is by hiding, or by getting small. When children are in distress, they might look calm, but unless there is a felt sense of safety, the body will be surging with neurochemicals that make it impossible for that young brain to learn or connect. 

We all have our things that can send us there. These things are different for all of us, and often below our awareness. The responses to these ‘things’ are automatic and instinctive, and we won’t always know what has sent us there. 

We just need to be mindful that sometimes it’s when children seem like no trouble at all that they need our help the most. The signs can include a wilted body, sad or distant eyes, making the body smaller, wriggly bodies, a heavy head. 

It can also look as though they are ignoring you or being quietly defiant. They aren’t - their bodies are trying to keep them safe. A  body in flight or flight can’t hear words as well as it can when it’s calm.

What they need (what all kids need) are big signs of safety from the adult in the room - loving, warm, voices and faces that are communicating clear intent: ‘I’m here, I see you and I’ve got you. You are safe, and you can do this. I’m with you.’♥️
I’d love to invite you to an online webinar:
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As we emerge from the pandemic, stressors are heightened, and anxiety is an ever more common experience. We know from research that the important adults in the life of a child or teen have enormous capacity to help their world feel again, and to bring a felt sense of calm and safety to those young ones. This felt sense of security is essential for learning, regulation, and general well-being. 

I’m thrilled to be joining @marc.brackett and Dr Farah Schroder to explore the role of emotion regulation and the function of anxiety in our lives. Participants will learn ways to help express and regulate their own, and their children’s, emotions, even when our world may feel a little scary and stressful. We will also share practical and holistic strategies that can be most effective in fostering well-being for both ourselves and children. 

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The link to register is in my story.♥️
So much of what our kids and teens are going through isn’t normal - online school, extended separation from their loved people, lockdowns, masks. Even if what they are going through isn’t ‘normal’, their response will be completely understandable. Not all children will respond the same way if course, but whatever they feel will be understandable, relatable, and ‘normal’. 

Whether they feel anxious, confused, frustrated, angry, or nothing at all, it’s important that their response is normalised. Research has found that children are more likely to struggle with traumatic events if they believe their response isn’t normal. This is because they tend to be more likely to interpret their response as a sign of breakage. 

Try, ‘What’s happening is scary. There’s no ‘right’ way to feel and different people will feel different things. It’s okay to feel whatever you feel.’

Any message you can give them that you can handle all their feelings and all their words will help them feel safer, and their world feel steadier.♥️
We need to change the way we think about discipline. It’s true that traditional ‘discipline’ (separation, shame, consequences/punishment that don’t make sense) might bring compliant children, but what happens when the fear of punishment or separation isn’t there? Or when they learn that the best way to avoid punishment is to keep you out of the loop?

Our greatest parenting ‘tool’ is our use of self - our wisdom, modelling, conversations, but for any of this to have influence we need access to their ‘thinking’ brain - the prefrontal cortex - the part that can learn, think through consequences, plan, make deliberate decisions. During stress this part switches off. It is this way for all of us. None of us are up for lectures or learning (or adorable behaviour) when we’re stressed.

The greatest stress for young brains is a felt sense of separation from their important people. It’s why time-outs, shame, calm down corners/chairs/spaces which insist on separation just don’t work. They create compliance, but a compliant child doesn’t mean a calm child. As long as a child doesn’t feel calm and safe, we have no access to the part of the brain that can learn and be influenced by us.

Behind all behaviour is a need - power,  influence, independence, attention (connection), to belong, sleep - to name a few). The need will be valid. Children are still figuring out the world (aren’t we all) and their way of meeting a need won’t always make sense. Sometimes it will make us furious. (And sometimes because of that we’ll also lose our thinking brains and say or do things that aren’t great.)

So what do we do when they get it wrong? The same thing we hope our people will do when we get things wrong. First, we recognise that the behaviour is not a sign of a bad child or a bad parent, but their best attempt to meet a need with limited available resources. Then we collect them - we calm ourselves so we can bring calm to them. Breathe, be with. Then we connect through validation. Finally, when their bodies are calm and their thinking brain is back, talk about what’s happened, what they can do differently next time, and how they can put things right. Collect, connect, redirect.
Our nervous systems are talking to each other every minute of every day. We will catch what our children are feeling and they will catch ours. We feel their distress, and this can feed their distress. Our capacity to self-regulate is the circuit breaker. 

Children create their distress in us as a way to recruit support to help them carry the emotional load. It’s how it’s meant to be. Whatever you are feeling is likely to be a reflection what your children are feeling. If you are frustrated, angry, helpless, scared, it’s likely that they are feeling that way too. Every response in you and in them is relevant. 

You don’t need to fix their feelings. Let their feelings come, so they can go. The healing is in the happening. 

In that moment of big feelings it’s more about who you are than what you do. Feel what they feel with a strong, steady heart. They will feel you there with them. They will feel it in you that you get them, that you can handle whatever they are feeling, and that you are there. This will help calm them more than anything. We feel safest when we are ‘with’. Feel the feeling, breathe, and be with - and you don’t need to do more than that. 
There will be a time for teaching, learning, redirecting, but the middle of a storm is not that time.♥️

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