Rational explanations for irrational behavior

Some kids handle the college admissions process a lot better than their parents do.

The journey through college applications has morphed into one that can cause even the steadiest parents to feel some occasional anxiety. Unfortunately, it can also cause some otherwise perfectly reasonable adults to come completely unhinged.

Parents forging their kids’ college essays. Calling and emailing an admissions office repeatedly to ask the same question about test scores (some parents even do so from their kids’ email accounts). Involving lawyers to force schools to change policies about class rank. Acting as if the college admissions process is happening to them and not to their kids. Turning the process into a status competition. Referring to a denial of admission as a tragedy. Losing all perspective.

None of this is healthy or rational. And while some parents might excuse their own behavior as simply effort on behalf of their children, the truth is that none of this helps their kids. And in fact, by spiraling out of control on their kids’ behalf, these parents are actually abandoning their most important job—to be the parent of a college applicant.

As challenging as this kind of behavior can be for a counselor to work with, when we train new counselors at Collegewise, we remind them that these parents aren’t bad people or even bad parents. The behavior likely comes from places these families don’t fully recognize or understand themselves. And for many, it comes from the fear of losing their child. Deep down, these parents know that their kids are leaving home soon. And there’s a finality to that transition that some parents really struggle to come to terms with. While I can’t necessarily imagine myself behaving like that (I won’t be allowed to after preaching so consistently against it here on my blog for years), I can come a lot closer to understanding it since I became a parent myself in 2014.

If you’re a parent going through the process who’s struggling with emotions or behavior that you don’t consider normal for you, or if you’re a counselor who works with parents who are struggling, give this piece, Pulling Anchor, Setting Sail, a read. The author is a psychologist specializing in clinical work with children, adolescents, couples, and families. And while naysayers may write his ideas off as simply yet another attempt to inject psychoanalysis into daily life, I thought he offered some rational explanations for otherwise irrational admissions-related behavior.