Seniors in “College Denial”

by | Oct 21, 2016

I would like to share with you the email I received last night from a parent:

“My daughter is in denial regarding college applications. At the beginning of the semester, her school organized a trip to a college fair, and she refused to attend. I thought K. was not feeling well, or perhaps was not in the mood. Sadly, I realized that this pattern continues to this day. I trusted that she was completing her common application (she assured me she was), but now come to realize that it is as incomplete as it was in August! I then asked her about the essay (which she told me was “almost done”). The “almost done” essay, to my dismay, was just a first draft of one short paragraph, poorly written and not even revised. She has done NOTHING! On Monday I called the guidance counselor at the school, a wonderful woman whom I know for years. I was told that she has been looking for K. (“chasing” her), they actually scheduled 2 appointments, but K. never showed up! Of course K. knows how frustrated I am and keeps avoiding me at all cost. Last night I lost my patience. The house was a war zone! After all that yelling, I still feel nothing was accomplished. I have no idea how to deal with her.”

My heart goes out to this parent. She believes that there is something wrong with her child, that her daughter is not doing what she is supposed to do, and that this is not normal behavior. “Every senior in high school, all her friends” –the email continues- “are enthusiastic about college. All these kids and parents are talking about is college applications…what is wrong with my girl??”

The “college buzz” is powerful at this time of the year, no doubt about it. It seems to be the only topic for seniors and their parents alike. However, those of us who work with college bound students know that it is not rare to encounter the head-in-the- sand teenager. If you happen to have one at home, don’t panic! This article will help you understand and better deal with the situation.

I will share a story from a different time and context, and very relevant to this topic. Back in my twenties my friend Sandra had her first baby, Nicolas. As many new mothers do, Sandra read What to Expect with a Toddler and carefully took notes of the main developmental milestones, so she would know what to expect. Sandra learned that babies crawl at about 7 months and walk at about 12 months. The book clarified that this is a guide, so these milestones are certainly not “written in stone”. Nevertheless, as a first time mother, Sandra had expectations based on these parameters. This is understandable!

Well, 7 months came and went, but Nico didn’t crawl. Then 8 months, 9 and 10. Nico was a happy and sociable baby, ate well, slept well, but still didn’t crawl. At 11 months Sandra was hysterical, spoke to her mom and all her friends, called her pediatrician, whined and cried. She watched her friends’ babies as they were crawling across the room, and then looked at Nico, still sitting and playing with his toys. As the weeks went by, Sandra grew miserable and felt pity for herself and her family for having an abnormal child who didn’t crawl. The saga carried on for weeks, until one day, out of the blue, Nico grabbed the coffee table, pulled himself up, and started… walking!

Some parents are watching the “college buzz” around them, and sadly report that their senior in high school is completely disengaged from the college-going process. They feel embarrassed to admit that in the midst of all the college excitement, their child -who was probably a reasonably good student – is not only un-interested, but the college application process has been a nightmare that deteriorated relationships and ruined the atmosphere at home.

Over the years I heard complaints from several parents, who make great efforts to take their kids on college tours “to get them motivated”, only to find that their teen did not lift their eyes from their cell phone during the whole campus tour. “Does my son think he is doing me a favor by visiting colleges? I was enraged!”. Other students enjoy the tours but then don’t work on the application, as if deadlines and requirements are just background noise, something that doesn’t concern them at all. Weeks go by; the application does not move forward, teens become more reclusive and parents increasingly anxious. Results: yelling, door slamming and tears of frustration.

Let’s assume that some of the above is regular teenage behavior. However, put out your ‘parent antennas’ and try to sense if something else is going on. So, if you see no progress at all, and your teen exhibits clear head-in-the-sand behavior, here are my 12 tips to consider:

1. First and foremost, yelling and screaming will not make the situation better. It will alienate your child further and create distance between you and her. The distance will make you, the parent, less impactful and effective in the message you want to convey. Caveat: breaking the cycle of hostility does not mean that you have to reward your teen, become his “buddy”, or take a laisez-faire approach.

2. Icebreakers. If the relationship has been hostile for some time, you might have to break the ice before you can have a serious talk. Icebreakers are activities that engage you and your teen in a light and simple activity, to rekindle the bond between you and her. Examples: cooking together, going out for a walk, or just buying groceries together. If your teen doesn’t accept such invitation, engage in a simple conversation on a topic that might be of interest to him/her. Keep it simple, fun, and non-judgmental, and refrain from bringing up any hot topic.

3. Empathize. When you reestablished some of the trust and you are ready to begin the conversation, create a time and circumstance where you can talk in private. Communicate to your child that you empathize with him/her. Share your own feelings about this topic and don’t be afraid to admit your biases or shortcomings as a parent (this does not make you weaker!). Consider analyzing the situation together, instead of offering your own interpretation.

4. Convey that you are on the same team, and what you care about is his/her happiness and well-being, and this will be sorted out. Normalize by sharing that this happens to other students, and it is not the end of the world!

5. Be open-minded. Try your best to avoid judgment and pre-conceived ideas of how things “should be”. There are many paths to the top of the mountain!

6. Listen to what your child is telling you with their words and actions. Consider that your child might not be ready for college right now. They might not know how to articulate this, or may be afraid to disappoint you, but their actions can be quite telling. There are very viable options and wonderful programs for a gap year!

7. Timing. Discuss with your teen that timing is an important factor for success, and that forcing a process can backfire: if a student is not ready to go away to college, they might have to return home mid-semester, feeling frustrated and defeated. Why do that to a child?

8. Gap years are rich in experiences and growth. They are like dog years in terms of maturity: one year is equivalent to 7 years of growing up and developing as a person. If you and your teen are interested in this option, look into meaningful experiences, with opportunities open their horizon, reflect, and mature.

9. Apply as a backup plan. If a gap year sounds like a good choice, I recommend applying to a few colleges regardless. This will give your teen some options in case they change their mind in a few months. Besides, they will have a plan set up for the future.

10. Consider the Big Picture. Invite your teen to consider the big picture (not easy for a teenager!). If they graduate from college at age 22 or 23, does this make any difference in the scope of their lifetime?

11. Local College. If a gap year is not the appropriate choice for your family, consider enrollment in a local college for the first year or two. Students can always transfer elsewhere later on, if appropriate. If you are concerned about the “label” of the college, rest assured that no employer will care where they started college. They will only ask where they finished.

12. Use a Third Party. Last but not least! A message delivered by a parent often lacks validity for a teenager. The same message delivered by a third person can have a much larger chance of being heard!

To all the Sandras in this world: our children are not molded by a cookie-cutter. This is a good thing! Allow them to have the space and time they need to mature. Support and nurture their growth, and listen to the unspoken words. With your help and encouragement, and when they feel ready, they will walk.

Bettina Weil, LMSW

Questions? Comments? We want to hear from you!

Weil College Advising

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