Campus Confidential: Coping with College

Preparing for Life’s Inevitable Challenges

Taking Charge of Your Life

How to make decisions in your best self-interest

The day after submitting my first blog post, "A Peer-to-Peer Approach to Campus Mental Health," an anonymous reviewer pointed out that college students “don't have the mature insight and are utilizing immature defense mechanisms such as projective identification, projection splitting, denial etc. that are unconscious.”   

Rather than my dismissing this reviewer as having missed the primary thesis of my blog on how college students can recognize when they are being unconsciously controlled by others (embedded voice of authority) and how they can make their own decisions, I realize that I must have been an ineffective communicator with this person.  Yes, I can agree, college students often lack insight.  This is largely due, I believe, to incomplete prefrontal neurodevelopment, as well as lack of experience in making decisions.   

One way for young people to gain this experience is to be taught very early in life to always the consider the consequences, both pro and con, when making choices. Let me tell you a story about Jamie, an 8-year-old, bright-eyed boy, brought to psychotherapy by his parents, Ted and Jean, for refusing to go to school. The problem, Ted said, was that the kids made fun of Jamie because he wore a hearing aid.   

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Ted explained that Jamie had accompanied him to work one Saturday during the summer.  Ted operated a bulldozer at work and Jamie had climbed up to the driver’s seat and fallen off, hitting the side of his head on a rock. Ted rushed Jamie to an emergency ward, where the boy was reported to have just a mild concussion. Several weeks later, however, it became apparent that Jamie had partial hearing loss. 

Jamie’s mother, Jean, a middle school teacher, was beside herself. She had been forced to become Jamie’s sole disciplinarian, because Ted was feeling such guilt over the boy’s injury that he could not bring himself to exert discipline. Jean said she could hear herself yelling at Jamie to get dressed, eat his breakfast, and get to school on time. But Jamie insisted he hated school and refused to go. Jean said she also was upset because she knew state law required all children to attend school. 

I turned to Jamie and asked what he enjoyed doing. Jamie said he liked to play his guitar. Anything else, I asked? Yes, he liked to paint pictures and make collages. Jamie also liked to watch goldfinches, chickadees, and titmice come to the bird feeder. What about friends, did Jamie have any friends? Jamie said yes, he liked all the kids at school, but could not understand why several boys, who he had formerly played with, were now making fun of him. I said, “Listen Jamie.  I want you to be able to stand on your own two feet, be your own person, and make your own decisions. If you don’t want to go to school, OK. There is nothing right or wrong about it. There are only consequences.” 

Jean lunged forward to object, but Ted motioned her back.  I turned to Jean and said that she should not force Jamie to go to school, that it was in Jamie’s best interest to learn to make his own decisions, based upon the consequences. It was important to use an educational approach rather than an authoritative approach. I told Ted and Jean to sit down with Jamie and discuss the pros and cons of his attending school, but to leave the final decision up to Jamie. 

At the next session, Ted, all smiles, rushed ahead to tell me that Jamie had decided to attend school. He also said that he and Jean would wait outside in the sitting room because Jamie wanted to talk to me alone. I asked Jamie why he decided to return to school? Jamie said that he had friends at school he would miss, that it would become too boring with just himself at home, and that he wanted to learn so he could get a good job later on in life. I asked, what about being teased by the kids at school?  Jamie said it really didn’t matter — although he liked everyone, not everyone had to like him. I shook Jamie’s hand and asked him to have his mother come in alone for a minute.  

Jean said Jamie was as happy as she could remember. Jamie had grabbed hold of the “no right and wrongs, only consequences” creed and was having fun applying it to everything. She extended her hand and thanked me for dealing so fast with Jamie. Even though at first she had wanted to object, she had understood the urgency of Jamie’s problem and was now glad it was resolved. Also, Jean felt good that she no longer had to be the constant disciplinarian. 

In sum, I wouldn’t want to bet on how his teachers will respond to Jamie’s new creed, but they may have a thing or two to learn themselves.

William Mace, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist in private practice, has developed PsychResilience Training (PRT) for prevention and treatment of adult depression and anxiety disorders.

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