By Riikka Melartin, Psy.D.
According to the Department of Education, more than 75% of high school graduates go on to college in Massachusetts. This percentage is even higher in some communities and high schools and many of our children and families are starting the college process this spring with standardized testing and college tours in preparation for applying next fall. This can be a stressful time when families can experience conflict around the parents’ versus the student’s wishes and values, increased anxiety in the children themselves, and worries about finances.
When I’ve asked my young patients about the process, they have provided me with some useful insights. Teenagers want to be treated as individuals, not as extensions or clones of their parents. Just because mom was good at math, Johnny might not be; just because dad went to a certain university and loved it, Janie might not. Just because mom and dad didn’t go to college, doesn’t mean Lisa won’t. Loving children may feel disloyal expressing what they really want, unless the parents make it very clear that it’s safe to do so. When parents ask questions about what activities and subjects they’ve enjoyed, do they imagine themselves in urban or rural surroundings, do they feel it’s important that there is someone they already know at their new campus, etc., it make students feel that their parents are trying to get to know them and their needs. Children who are the first in their family to go to college may not be sure their parents really approve or support them, but when their parents ask genuinely interested questions it can give them the message that they are involved and behind them.
Students also want parents to know that they are already very concerned and stressed given the perceived pressure from guidance counselors and teachers and the competition among peers, and that they don’t need more pressure from their parents. Instead, they want reassurance that they are loved and valued regardless of their SAT scores or what schools accept them. As one boy put it, “She’s known me for seventeen years, she knows what a hard-working and good person I am. Why does my class rank suddenly matter more than that?”
Of course most parents do continue to love and appreciate their children, but from the students’ point of view, expressing that can fall by the wayside as parents themselves get caught up in the anxiety of “what next.” Armed with support and validation, students feel calmer and are more likely to be motivated (which is what most parents want.)
Another issue is finances. Parents can feel a lot of regret around not being able to provide as much funding for college as they’d like. Talking about finances openly can be very helpful, not just as education for life, but in reducing anxiety for your child. For most things in life, knowing is less anxiety provoking than guessing. Parents can be allies in researching scholarships, helping with financial aid applications, and reassuring their children that one way or another, they will help them figure out how to get the degree they want. Ideally, don’t make your child do the financial aid applications alone. My college student clients have told me they felt abandoned if parents didn’t help and felt that they were getting the message that college wasn’t important. On the other hand, doing it all on your own without involving your child robs you both of an important opportunity to talk about finances, planning, and other adult realities— which can be an important part of preparing for adulthood.
Riikka Melartin, Psy.D. is a licensed psychologist who provides individual therapy, counseling, and consultation for clients who are diverse in age, ethnicity, and sexual orientation. Until recently, she also worked as a school psychologist.
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