When the talk turns towards college

I posted a reminder for parents earlier this month that there are far more fascinating conversations to be had with your teens than those that revolve around college admissions topics. And I still maintain that you have a far more important job than that of college application general manager in your house. But there are times, especially for parents of seniors at this time of year, when you just can’t ignore the application deadline elephant in the room. Done right, a related conversation can leave your teen feeling supported, encouraged, and well-reminded that your relationship won’t change based on which colleges say yes or no. Here are a few tips to help you handle those conversations well.

1. Trade judgement for empathy.
Yes, it’s possible your student has procrastinated, ignored advice, or made other decisions that have put them in a more stressful position now than they needed to be in. Guess what? Seventeen-year-olds are supposed to make those mistakes. In fact, they can learn from them. Believe me, they’re likely feeling judged enough by the entire process without Mom or Dad chiming in. So instead of judging, try empathizing. Make an honest effort to understand how they’re feeling. The truth is that you don’t know what it’s like to be a teenager in the world today, much less one who’s applying to college. If you make the effort to empathize, you’ll find the conversation will change. You’ll ask more questions. You’ll listen more. And you’ll probably come away with a better understanding of your teen and what they’re experiencing right now.

2. Offer an invitation, not solutions.
You’re the adult in this relationship, and it can be tempting to offer solutions that you know will help your kids get completed applications out the door. But even the most well-intentioned offers can still be received by teenagers as a sign that you just don’t believe in them. Asking, “Is there anything I can do to help?” seems generous and unobtrusive, but often doesn’t yield an affirmative response. So instead, try offering an invitation, like, “If there’s anything I can do to help, will you tell me?” This sets the table for a future conversation even if your teen isn’t presently in the market for parental assistance.

3. Don’t draw comparisons.
What other kids or other families are doing during this time just doesn’t matter. In a process that’s all about comparison between applicants, resist any inclination to compare what your student is or isn’t doing with the actions (or inactions) of other students. Even when meant in a positive way, these comparisons just heighten kids’ feelings that their college application process really isn’t theirs at all.

4. Build on good news.
Has your teen made progress with their applications? Do they have a list with at least a few schools their counselor said were sure things? Even better, has your student already applied to and been accepted at some colleges? Don’t ignore those wins in favor of focusing on what’s left. Instead, celebrate them. Remind your kids how far they’ve come, how much they have to look forward to in college, and how happy you are about the positives worth celebrating. Progress, wins, and good news are like emotional fuel to help your kids face whatever comes next. Don’t miss the opportunity to build on this good news.

5. Remind them what won’t change.
The stakes can feel so high during the college admissions process: first-choice schools, competition between friends, joy and despair when decisions arrive, not to mention the sea of change coming when kids inevitably leave high school and head to college somewhere. In your conversations, it’s helpful to remind kids of those constants that won’t change–most importantly, your love for them. Remember, it’s likely abundantly clear to you how much you love your kids and how little their grades, SAT scores, or college decisions are likely to change that. But it’s not always clear to the applicant in the house. Any step you can take, whether in words within these conversations or actions outside of them, will go a long way to giving a sense of comfort and resilience to kids who are immersed in a process that can chip away at both.