Secondhand stress

I’ve written before about just how harmful parental peer pressure can be during the college admissions process. It just takes a couple of misguided friends to make you feel like your family is behind, at a disadvantage, and at the mercy of a cutthroat process where only the straight-A’s survive.

It turns out there’s actually a scientific basis to this. Shawn Achor is a Harvard professor of positive psychology. As he describes in this five-minute talk, when he and his team look at actual brain scans, they can see changes occurring based on a subject’s surroundings.

“It turns out that negativity, stress, uncertainty—we can actually pick it up like secondhand smoke. You don’t even have to be the one smoking to have negative health effects. The same is true around the ways that our brains are designed. If you’re surrounded by people who are pessimistic about the future, they’re gossiping, they’re negative, they’re full of complaints, even if you have an optimistic brain, your brain will start to process the world like that person is unless we’re conscious of it.”

One of the core tenets of a successful, enjoyable college admissions process is to focus on the parts that you can control (while letting go of the other parts). You can’t control the way fellow parents behave. But you can control your own behavior, and whether or not you engage with those people who ruin what should be an exciting time for your family.

You’re only going to experience this transition from high school to college once with each of your kids. Don’t let other parents ruin it for you. Spend time with other people who love their kids and just want to see them happy at whatever school they attend, who don’t feel the need to turn this into a status competition, and who project an air of support and that you’re all in this together.

Your family’s college admissions process will be happier and healthier without secondhand stress.

Look for the teaching moments

One of a parent’s most important goals during the high school years should be to prepare their student for life on his or her own, without managing every decision, challenge, and uncertainty. It’s not that you’ll ever stop being a parent—it’s a lifetime gig and your kids won’t ever stop needing you. But unless you plan on moving into the dorm next door (not a good idea), the roles, both yours and your student’s, are going to change. The high school years are the perfect opportunity to prepare by looking for the teaching moments.

“Can you take care of this?”
The first step is to look for opportunities to stop doing for your kids those things that they could do for themselves. That’s the teaching moment. Start by asking them more questions and to describe what they’re facing. If they’re having trouble in a class and want you to talk to their teacher for them, ask them to tell you more about what kind of trouble they’re having, how long it’s been a problem, and what they’ve tried so far. Questions like these move kids from dropping a situation on your plate–and waiting for you to fix it–to examining what’s facing them. They can’t find the answers if they don’t first learn how to examine the problems.

“What do you think I should do?”
As kids get better at assessing what’s facing them, they’ll move to seeking your advice. “Can you take care of this?” will become, “What do you think I should do?” Instead of just answering the question, use it as a teaching moment. Ask if they’ve tried anything to solve it themselves, and if not, what they’ve considered. Help them think through their options, and explain your thinking, too, as you come up with an answer together. The goal is to move them from asking you for a solution to presenting you with one they found themselves.

“Here’s what I’m going to do.”
As their confidence builds, kids will begin coming to you to share not just a problem, but also their intended solution. It’s a way of checking in to make sure they’re not missing a better option or making an irreversible mistake. The teaching moment presented here is to highlight what they’re doing right, even if you don’t entirely agree with the course of action. If they’re examining the challenge, considering solutions, and showing the initiative to make a choice, they’re on the right path. Remember, the goal isn’t necessarily for them to do everything perfectly the first time. It’s to learn from these experiences, and that means that some lessons will sting more than others. Have faith that while you’re not protecting them from every potential disappointment, you’re setting them up for independence, success, and happiness.

“Here’s what I did.”
Eventually, one of two things will happen. Your kids will either begin coming to you to share how they’ve handled what’s faced them, or they’ll stop sharing updates at all because they’ve learned to take care of those things that formerly resided on your docket. Both scenarios are parental victories. When you do learn of these instances, praise the effort and thinking even if the outcome wasn’t perfect. That’s your teaching moment, and it will only increase their confidence in themselves and their trust that you’re still looking out for them even if you’re no longer their manager, assistant, and publicist.

It’s a process, one that takes faith in your parenting and in your own son or daughter. And like most parts of parenting, there’s no short class to take to learn exactly how to do it. But the good news is that while there may not always be a right answer, there will be plenty of available teaching moments.

Parents’ hopes and fears

Brennan Barnard is the director of college counseling at the Derryfield School in Manchester, N.H. His piece in the Washington Post, The deepest fears — and hopes — parents harbor about their kids applying to college, is worth the quick read for parents. While managing to give some tough love to those parents who lose sight of what is really important during the college admissions process, Barnard also injects some support, understanding, and an acknowledgment that even when misguided, parents really do just want what’s best for their kids. And he sums it all up nicely here:

“As we help our children plan for the future and deal with adversity or disappointment, let us remember what motivates us — the desire for them to be their best and find success.  They will have to discover what that means for themselves — and we as parents will continue to balance our hopes and fears as we begin a new year.”

Crisis today, anecdote tomorrow

I still remember the consternation my wife and I felt when her maternity leave was coming to an end and our firstborn still wouldn’t take a bottle. She shared her worries with her own mother about how we’d tried every bottle size and shape, but he wouldn’t take any of them.

I don’t know what I’m doing wrong. What if this doesn’t change? What are we going to do? What if he won’t eat and I have to quit my job and I’m chained to this kid forever just to make sure he doesn’t starve?

As only a wise grandmother who’s successfully raised two kids of her own could do, my mother-in-law just shrugged her shoulders and said, “Someday, this will just be an anecdote.”

It didn’t feel particularly helpful at the time. But she was exactly right. As my wife describes it, what two new parents saw as a crisis situation is now a story that goes like this when we talk about it:

Remember how he wouldn’t take the bottle, and then he did?

Not dramatic at all in hindsight.

Grandma knew that this is pretty much what happens with kids. You love them, you do your best, and things eventually work out. Everything in between is just a future anecdote that appears when you’re looking back and no longer in the middle of it.

Parenting a teen through the college admissions process can feel like parenting a fragile newborn all over again. Every decision, every outcome, feels so magnified, like it’s charting an irreversible course. No mistakes allowed. Better get everything perfect the first time or he’ll never recover!

But those experiences that feel like crises today will be just another anecdote tomorrow.

Remember when you didn’t make the football team and then found wrestling?

Remember when you didn’t do well on the SAT and still got into lots of colleges?

Remember how you were sure you could never be as happy as you would have been at Stanford, and today you can’t stop talking about how much you love Colorado College?

When you feel the anxiety and pressure and complexity getting to you, try to remember that there are almost no college admissions-related crises today that won’t transform into anecdotes tomorrow.

Golden children vs. comeback kids

I hadn’t previously read any of KJ Dell’Antonia’s work, but her recent blog post, It is harder to raise the comeback kid than the golden child. And better, resonated with me. She shares specific advice without seeming (to me) too pedantic. And as a parent herself, she manages to speak from the parents’ side, acknowledging that it’s not always easy to embrace a child’s failure as a valuable opportunity to learn.

As she puts it:

“When failure turns into ‘not yet’ or ‘what’s next,’ you can help your child to start making her own magic. Will she get up the morning after her name isn’t on the roster for the basketball team, congratulate her friends, then go out and shoot hoops, and beg for the ride to the Y, and take every opportunity to show the coaches that next year, she’ll be ready? Or will he persuade the drama teacher to teach him how to run the light board in the school auditorium because he’s realized it’s the illusion, even more than the performances, that captivates him? Can she own her disappointment and make a plan, or turn her anger into determination? Can he try again, or set his sights—with excitement—on something else? The kid who can start again is the kid who is ready for the long game.”

I’ll just add one thing. Her article is pitched towards the majority of parents—those who don’t have what Dell’Antonia calls a “golden child,” the one “with all the gifts, who seems to sail through life so effortlessly, always in the front of the pack.” But some parents, including many who read this blog, are proud to have a golden child. And they should be. There’s nothing wrong with being a hard-working, high-achieving student who sets lofty goals and manages to achieve them.

But if you’ve got a golden child in the house, my recommendation is to praise the efforts rather than the achievements. Kids want to please their parents. And while it might be clear to you that your love and support is not dependent on straight A’s or other accolades, the message may be received very differently by the 16-year-old achiever.

The older these golden children get, the more challenges they take on, and the higher they reach, the more likely they’ll be to occasionally fall short. And I think Dell’Antonia’s message, which I agree with, is that, golden child or not, it’s the kids who learn how to come back from those setbacks who are most likely to consistently get what they want out of life.

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.

For parents: let kids prepare for life

A friend asked me this week to help him revise his resume. Anyone who’s made a resume has grappled with similar questions. How do you describe your experience and accomplishments in such a limited space? How can you stand out when you’re reduced to paper? How do you reconcile the fact that you’re sending this short document to people who don’t know you but ultimately get to judge and select—or not select—you? It can be challenging, humbling, and frustrating all at the same time. The good news is that (1) you get better at it over time, and (2) you can start learning how to do it in high school.

A college application might be the first time that a student completes an application for something this important, but it certainly won’t be the last. Presenting yourself in writing, doing an interview, asking for letters of reference—all of these are introductions to things that you will need to do again during and after college.

In fact, the same can be said for many high school experiences. Facing a challenge. Asking for help. Advocating for themselves. Managing conflict. Overcoming disappointment. Learning from failure. Making an impact. Leaving a legacy. Once kids leave high school, they’ll never need to learn to drive, take the SAT, or find a date for the prom again. But just about everything else will be repeated in some way at a later point. And some of those experiences will never stop appearing.

That’s yet another reason why it’s so important for parents not to do everything for their kids. When you take on every task, challenge, or opportunity for them, you take away their opportunities to learn.

Let your kids approach the teacher or counselor on their own to ask for help. Let them search, apply, and interview for the part-time job instead of securing something for them. Don’t protect them from every disappointment, sweep away all the obstacles, or create a world that won’t resemble the one they’ll live in once they leave college.

Instead, allow them to learn their own lessons. Sure, a parent can answer questions. Guide, support, and cheer them on. But high school, activities, and the college application process are great training grounds if you’ll allow them to be. Students aren’t just trying to get into college. They’re trying to prepare for life, too.

How to praise with purpose

Carol Dweck is a psychology professor at Stanford and one of the world’s leading researchers in the field of motivation. Specifically, she studies why people succeed and how to foster success, especially in kids.

This article gives a nice summary of the findings from two of Dweck’s recent studies. The two that jumped out at me for parents:

  1. Praising kids merely for their innate abilities, such as their intelligence, actually makes it less likely that they’ll grow up to enjoy learning and to excel.
  2. Praising kids instead for the strategies and processes they develop to solve problems—even when they don’t fully succeed—makes them more likely to try harder and ultimately achieve.

I don’t think Dweck is advocating that parents should use praise exclusively as a strategy to turn their kids into indomitable achievers. I can’t see how Mom or Dad just gushing unbridled praise occasionally can possibly put them on the bad parent list.

But the findings are a good reminder that a parent’s words carry more weight with their own kids. And even when praising, sometimes, we’ve got to choose those words carefully.

Redefining success for kids

How we define success for our kids can actually end up harming them. Madeline Levine is a founder at Challenge Success and the author of Teach Your Children Well: Why Values and Coping Skills Matter More than Grades, Trophies, or “Fat Envelopes.”

She’s also an advocate of redefining success for kids and not making everything about grades, test scores, and getting into a “good” college. But what I particularly appreciate about her advice is that, as a parent herself, she understands why redefining success feels so risky for so many families.

This 15-minute podcast interview with Levine is worth a listen for parents, and there were plenty of snippets I wanted to share. But I’ll limit it to this one, which was her response to a query about why it is so difficult for parents to adjust their vision of success for their kids.

“As kids get older, we become increasingly fearful of letting them make choices. ‘What if they make the wrong choice? It’ll keep them out of this school. It’ll keep them off that team.’ Not understanding that the experience of recovering from a mistake or a failure or a challenge is exactly where most of us grow. The capacity to tolerate failure, to learn from it, cultivates resilience.”

Savor this time

Parents with high school age kids probably have one or more Thanksgiving routines. You know which family members visit whom, who travels where, and who cooks what dishes. And most importantly, you know that wherever you are, your high school student will probably be right there at the table with you.

But as kids grow up, Thanksgiving (like just about everything else) gets more complicated.

Not every college kid comes home for Thanksgiving. Depending on where they go, travel can be expensive and just too difficult to execute for such a short stay.

Someday, those kids might get married and have families of their own. Life gets busier. More moving parts, more commitments, more extended family. Yes, that can make for a bigger and better celebration. But depending on where those former kids settle down, it might also mean that everyone can’t necessarily be together over turkey.

I don’t mention any of this to add sadness to your stuffing. I bring it up to remind families to be thankful for this time you have together. Don’t let college admissions anxiety rob you of that opportunity. Whether or not Cornell says yes might seem like the most important thing in the world right now. It might be difficult to wean yourself off the talk about applications and test scores and essay topics. But trust me, 2 or 12 or 20 years from now, those things won’t seem as important to focus on today as just relishing your family time is.

Savor your Thanksgiving meal, and savor this opportunity to be together.

Happy Thanksgiving.