Numerous factors conspire to burden our nation’s teenagers: long days and heavy homework loads, anxiety about various tests and school measurements, making parents proud, finding social acceptance, being attractive—and even living up to the American dream of a good salary and a “big” house.
The compelling questions parents and educators will inevitably ask themselves are these:
*What can we do to alleviate the stress?
* How can we help our children lead healthier lives?
* How can we change some of the patterns that create so much pressure during adolescence?
START COUNTING COLLEGE CALORIES!
Kids desperately need parents to understand that they can’t talk about college ALL the time. Author and educator Dr. Michael Thompson refers to “going on a college diet”; he urges parents to choose one dinner per week or one weekend afternoon when conversing about applications is sanctioned.
Similarly, parents can help children develop the confidence to ask others—including their classmates, relatives, coaches (even the dentist and orthodontist!)—not to converse about applications constantly. There are polite ways to protect one’s privacy during what can otherwise be a very public pursuit.
RESIST NAGGING…AND DON’T FORGET THE TREATS!
Moses Brown students are fortunate to have incredibly devoted and supportive parents. (Seniors regularly express their appreciation for their families during conversations in College Counseling.) Ultimately, our students express the need to establish their independence and utilize the support system at home. “I drive myself,” explained one senior in our office recently. “When my parents are on me, it stresses me out more.” In the way of advice to parents, she added (with a smile), “Give your kids space—but be there if they need to be quizzed for a biology test!”
That said, our children need us to be supportive, understanding and loving in our role as parents. Their top request? They desperately need us to refrain from nagging. (Let us do the reminding in College Counseling!).
Seniors also trust that parents will not measure them based on successes and disappointments in the application process; they deeply care what we think. Our sons and daughters additionally want us to acknowledge all that they have on their platters—including spending time with the MB friends who mean so much to them (and to whom they will eventually need to say “goodbye”).
The simplest advice? During essay writing and application completion season, students appreciate favorite treats and affectionate rewards— home baked goodies, a steaming Starbucks latte, an impromptu hug. Little things mean a lot.
HELPFUL ADULTS SURROUND STUDENTS AT MB
Students also look to adults at school for support. They are fortunate to count on MB teachers, advisors, coaches, co-curricular leaders and administrators for caring advice, able guidance, and a sympathetic ear. They trust that we will be sensitive to homework loads (including occasional homework free weekends!), the extra labor associated with college applications, necessary days for visiting campuses, and the daily plight of being an adolescent—all things we are committed to studying and weighing for our students.
THE POWER OF A 13TH YEAR
A “gap” year (or transition year) can be a wonderful and refreshing option for students who need a change of pace, an adventure—or perhaps a break from the rigorous academic routine. Students often find it rejuvenating to take control of their destiny after a structured high school existence —whether that means pursuing community service, traveling, taking a course or reading extensively. We stand ready to offer MB students and parents ideas in this regard.
THE PSYCHOLOGY OF TRANSITION
My colleague Helen Montague regularly asks her college advisees a simple but radically overlooked question: How do you cope with change?
This brilliant query strikes at the heart of the student experience during the college process. Many kids welcome the transition from high school to college: they crave independence, need to be in charge of their own lives, and rebuff the oversight and supervision of their parents. Some children can barely wait to be liberated–making senior year a test of patience for all involved in the family.
However, other students are more tentative about the significant changes ahead in their lives. They may be content existing within a predictable routine with the support of immediate and extended family on a daily basis. These students may even depend upon the steady guidance of their parents—not to mention the tasty meals, and comfortable bedroom and laundry facilities that accentuate their home life. Imagining a different scenario can leave them feeling worried, unraveled, and, yes, stressed.
We live in a society that elevates change and mobility. Within the college process, we typically follow this model and encourage kids to branch out, look outside of our region, and consider new places. This is largely a positive impetus. Yet we also need to protect kids in the college search who do not or cannot embrace change gracefully. They may be prone to homesickness, count on the support of a parent, wish to stay close to younger siblings, or have a personal or health issue to negotiate. Changing locales may be better for these students when they are older, more mature, and ready to accept the challenge.
“HAVING A LIFE” IS ESSENTIAL
We have talked about some of the practical ways parents can help escort high school students through a complex time in their lives. Easing up on the constant discussion of college offers one approach. Opening up possibilities to explore (Penn and Pitzer, Duke and Davidson, Middlebury and Macalester) represents another.
In the end, we need to help students claim a high school life—one they can return to when acceptances arrive and the enrollment deposit has been sent. When the quest for college negates sleep, sustaining relationships with friends, spending time outdoors and drifting in thought, reading recreationally, and watching a bit of TV or film (yes, even a dose of Facebook) —our children are bound to be fragile and uneasy. Above all else, we want them to value their educations and exercise their curiosities at MB. Preparation for undergraduate studies is, ultimately, more important than “getting in” to college. Over the course of a four-year university education, broad preparation will yield more benefits than a single acceptance letter.
PARENTS ALSO SUFFER STRESS
As we find ways to help our children, it’s important to acknowledge that the college process is stressful for parents. We’ve made huge financial and emotional investments in our kids, and we want things to turn out right—and well. Granting them independence in the search process is a big step—especially when their sense of efficiency and deadlines is not exactly the same as ours. Similarly, for parents who are not super-organized or accustomed to traveling (or simply have many, many things to do), the layers of the college search can be taxing. Application research also involves a lot of money—both to visit colleges and to finance a four-year education.
Not surprisingly, parents, faculty, and staff must collaborate to reduce the stress and anxiety carried by many teenagers. Within the college counseling process, we focus on forming a close relationship with each student and empowering him or her to lead the search. We do our best to break a complex project into smaller tasks over the course of numerous months, whether preparing for interviews or brainstorming essays. While the media bombards kids with messages about packaging themselves in slick ways within the application process, we keep the emphasis on personal integrity and maintaining one’s inner light.
Our MB message is clear: students do not need to “go it alone”, their needs and goals are central in the college process, and the “best” college is one that will make a student happy, successful, and inspired. Open-minded, patient, and good-humored support from the family contributes to a rewarding college search for each student—and even some fun and adventure along the way.
Part III next week… Final Thoughts: Stress and our Students
by Helen Scotte Gordon