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The college application process can be an incredibly stressful time for teens, and in many cases, for the whole family, as stress and tension from academic pressures spill over into the family sphere. From choosing where to apply, preparing for and taking the required standardized tests, maintaining a GPA, completing college and financial aid applications (and getting them in on time), and then making the decision of where to attend and/or how to spend the year post-graduation. The number and nature of the steps involved can feel overwhelming. As parents, your support is important. You can play a key role in helping your child navigate this process and, in doing so, help mitigate their anxieties, and boost their confidence and morale. Below are some of our best pointers as a New York City Psychotherapy Group on how to support your child’s mental health during the college admissions process.
Be they friends, neighbors, cousins, or coaches – supportive relationships significantly impact a teen’s self-esteem, feelings of competency, connectedness, and overall well-being. It may seem counterintuitive to prioritize socializing when attention to academic work is vital; however, a balanced schedule that makes room for socializing is key to warding off feelings of isolation, anxiety, and low mood. All of which hamper your child’s ability to thrive.
Connecting with peers can provide kids with a network of emotional support through shared experiences that parents are unequipped to provide. Friendships are a vital source of mutual support and community/connection, and they also remind kids that they are not alone in their insecurities. Making time for study breaks where kids can blow off steam together goes a long way in coping with pressure and academic stress.
Make time to check in with your teen regularly while respecting their boundaries and need for personal time. It’s a fine line, but making it known that you’re available to chat when they feel like it goes a long way. Teens often reject parent efforts to “talk,” but they like and need to know that you are there for them and consistently available to them. Encourage them to share their worries and, in return, validate their feelings and empathize with them, even if you think their worries are unfounded. Having the space to listen and feel heard is hugely supportive and goes a long way.
If applicable, open up about your own experiences of the college application process. Hearing that someone else has been through a similar experience and lived to tell the tale helps promote a healthy perspective and feel that you may understand part of what they’re going through. Reflect on your own experiences of school pressures and what you wish you had known or someone had told you at that age. Recognize also that as separate people, you and your child will differ in your experiences, challenges, and viewpoints, but remembering how you felt at their age may help you maintain an empathetic stance on a particularly hard day or amid a teen meltdown.
Let your child know that you love them no matter what and that their worth and value as a person are not defined by their number or type of school acceptances and is a small part of who they are and what they will/may choose to accomplish in life.
College applications often require a lot of steps and multiple deadlines, all while managing everyday responsibilities and schoolwork. This extra work can feel like a strain for even the most organized student. Executive functions such as time management, attention to detail, prioritization of tasks, and pacing oneself all come into play with college applications. Modeling these skills for your teen by showing them how you use specific organizational strategies (e.g., a day planner, a to-do list, and an organized work space) can be helpful. See this guide for executive function skill-building with adolescents developed by the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University.
Source: Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University (2014). Enhancing and Practicing Executive Function Skills with Children from Infancy to Adolescence. Retrieved from www.developingchild.harvard.edu.
Make time for physical activity and extracurriculars (think: sports games, walks, bike rides, practicing the latest TikTok dance routine). Exercise and movement help to manage stress on multiple levels. Physical activity stimulates stress-busting endorphins, which positively impacts mood, boosts cognitive functioning (including memory, attention, and learning), and improves sleep quality.
Sleep builds the foundation for all other pursuits. Set limits on screen time and switch off screens at least 1 hour (preferably 2 hours) before bedtime to help the mind wind down and support a more restful sleep.
See more on sleep hygiene here.
The start of a school year (and a particularly grueling year in particular) is a good time to check in with your teen about any mental health concerns they may be experiencing. Depending on the situation, seeking help via school counseling, support groups, and individual or adolescent group psychotherapy can address specific mental health concerns, minimize distress, and improve overall functioning and well-being.
All in all, the college application process can be a daunting and stressful time for both teens and their families. As parents, it is important to understand the significant role you play in helping your child navigate this process. By providing emotional support, guidance, and resources, you can help alleviate your child’s anxieties, boost their confidence, and ultimately make the college application process a more manageable and successful experience. Remember, the key is to be there for your child, provide them with the resources they need, and encourage them to take care of their mental health. With the proper guidance on how to support your child’s mental health during the college admissions process, your child can make the best decision for their future.