Teens Making College Decisions – Parent Help? Yes, Please

Teens Making College Decisions – Parent Help Yes, Please

Every parent wants his/her kids to become independent decision-makers. As they move into their teen years, it is definitely time for them to make choices and live with the consequences of those choices. They pick their friends, their activities, their high school elective courses, the clothes they wear, and a host of other things. We hope they will make wise choices, and often have to force ourselves to “let go” and bite our tongues when we believe a choice is wrong. It’s hard.

A major decision that is made between 11th and 12th grades is the choice of a college. This is far greater in scope than a decision about high school courses or activities. It is a decision about the next four years of this kid’s life, as well as one that has long-term consequences both in terms of career and finances. Parents play an important role – teens don’t have all of the necessary information to consider.

Before the Applications Even Go Out

Your teen will be better placed to make a decision that will be good for them if you’re able to have solid conversations before he or she begin the application process. These conversations need to include:

  1. What are they considering for career choices? Of course, this may change, but schools to which they apply should at least have decent programs in those career areas.
  2. How far away from home do they want to go? There needs to be a discussion about leaving family and friends, of course, but also about the great opportunities there are for kids who “strike out on their own” and experience all that new environments have to teach them about growing up and life itself.
  3. Budget considerations have to be discussed openly and honestly. If parents have budgeted specific amounts for college and those amounts will not cover some schools under consideration, what will the student need to do to get the rest of the funding? And do they understand the amount of debt they may have upon graduation and how long that will take to pay off? Chances are they don’t.

Having these discussions before applications are made will avoid a kid being set up for a disappointment. Yale is a wonderful school, but it costs about $50,000 a year.

Choices are Narrowed – a Great Teaching Moment

Once applications have gone out and acceptances have been received, the field has been narrowed. But deciding among those options still involves the same types of discussions as before and more – it will involve a decision-making process.

A college choice is a decision with long-term consequences. Most teens have not made such a decision before, and this gives parents a great chance to take them through the process of making those big life decisions that will come after college. If all goes well, the process will carry over into their adult lives, and they will have the skills to analyze options and to select the best one. The parent role in this is to teach the process not to make the decision.

Begin With Goals

It is important for kids to think about what their goals are in attending college. And they vary a lot. Some kids want pre-med or pre-law; other kids want a Bachelor’s in a specific field and then onto the work force immediately. Still others are totally clueless about potential majors and will need a strong general education program for the first couple of years while they “test the waters.” Whatever the current goals are, they should be written down.

Other non-academic goals are also important. What are geographic preferences? Is a larger, less personal environment that has greater diversity desirable, or is a smaller more personal institution a better fit?

List Those Pros and Cons

Once those goals are set, then each option can be analyzed with pros and cons based upon its meeting those goals.

A list of pros and cons should be made for each option. This is the only way to avoid an emotional decision, such as picking a school because a best friend is going there or because Uncle Charlie went there 20 years ago and loved it.

Insist Upon Visits

Your teen may have combed college websites and gained lots of information to put on his/her pro and con lists. But no final decision should be made without a visit. It’s just part of a rational path of investigation. Technology is wonderful, and virtual tours, inviting and exciting websites, and even apps that compare and contrast institutions are all great sources of information, but none of these things will replace physically setting oneself on a campus and experiencing the environment first-hand.

If your teen is particularly independent, many schools do offer weekend visits that will place him/her in a dorm with current students so that there is a real taste of college life.

The Final Choice – It is Your Teen’s to Make

What parents can provide is a process. They can also ask the important questions that will help their teens flush out their real goals, needs and desires. Ultimately, however, your kiddo must make the final decision. When that happens, it must be with your blessing, even if your choice would have been another. The important thing is that your teen now has a process for making other major decisions that will come along.

After the Decision – Support

Your role now is to be supportive of the decision and to help your teen prepare for this new chapter of life. S/he will need to continue to conduct lots of research in order to know what equipment, supplies, clothing, and even technology, along with tools and apps that fellow students recommend for being more successful should be accumulated between now and the departure date. 


About the author: Julie Ellis

JulieJulie Ellis is Miami-based marketer, passionate traveller and business blogger.

When she’s not engaged in helping her customers and students, you can find her writing lifestyle and personal development articles.

Follow Julie’s Twitter to connect and find some daily inspiration.

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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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