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Prepare Your Child for College by Teaching Resilience

High S.A.T. scores and straight A’s don’t always guarantee success in college

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In my 15 years of college teaching, I met many students who struggled with the transition from their family home to the college setting. It wasn’t just that they didn’t know how to do laundry or get to class on time. Rather, they weren’t psychologically prepared for the experience of living in a dorm away from home. Every semester, I’d meet or hear about students who floundered in their new environment and quit. They simply couldn’t weather the academic and social challenge of college. Some were valedictorians, some were talented athletes, some were legacies, and some were first-generation college students, yet they all were too overwhelmed to finish their freshman year.

There’s no guarantee that your child will thrive at college. However, there are ways to increase their chances. Helicopter parenting already has plenty of critics, but even laid-back parents unconsciously protect their children from situations and circumstances that equip young adults for undergraduate life.

Here are five gifts of resilience that you can offer your college-bound son or daughter:

1. Let them struggle and even fail. We all want to protect our children from hardship, but constantly shielding them from failure doesn’t do them any favors. College freshman shouldn’t crumble when they receive a B or C on an exam, yet I witnessed this repeatedly. For some high-achieving students, a lower grade was a major blow to their sense of self. These students would show up to my office hours and cry, “But I’m an A student!” and simply couldn’t recover from the academic bump in the road. We all get knocked down in life. It’s the way we rise up that defines our strength and character. Parents sometimes go too far to ensure that their child doesn’t falter. They help their high school students with homework, demand retests, and ask teachers to reconsider grades. Too many undergrads enter college with learned helplessness, a lack of efficacy when it comes to solving their own problems and overcoming hurdles. Make sure that you don’t always bail them out, pick up the slack, or make excuses for them.

2. Examine and support their coping strategies. As a parent, you want to see what it looks like when your child fails. How do they fare psychologically? Do they have effective coping strategies? Sometimes parents don’t push their children to take the toughest courses because they worry about stress and anxiety. I have a different take on this. I pushed my high schoolers to take the most challenging courses so that I could see how they dealt with challenges and pressure. I wanted them to fail under my roof. I wanted to be there for them when they were learning to cope with adversity. My daughter struggled in chemistry, and it was hard to watch her effort not being rewarded by top grades, but she persevered. That struggle probably taught her more about herself than her experience in all her other high school classes combined. And I was there to help her develop coping skills that she can now apply for the rest of her life. After seeing so many college kids break down when things didn’t go well at school, I was happy to be there for her. Sadly, depression, drug use, binge drinking, eating disorders, self-harm, and even suicide are a reality on all college campuses. Some of these problems are linked to the age of onset for depression and other mental illnesses, but too many undergrads haven’t developed the coping skills necessary for independence and struggle.

3. Be prepared to say “no” when they ask for homework help. It’s tempting to pitch in when your child is struggling with a paper or project, especially when they ask for your help. But it’s truly an act of kindness to let them sit in their struggle and work their way through it. Before they start college, make sure your kids can complete a project from start to finish by themselves. The efficacy they’ll gain is well worth the challenge of watching your kid struggle. I have five children, and each one has had a defining project that they procrastinated over, were confused by, or simply hated. It was torture for the whole family as they made their way through, but whether they did a great or mediocre job, it was their effort and their result.

4. Give them the freedom to do the wrong thing. In the name of safety, it’s tempting to know where your child is every minute of the day. However, college offers a lot of free time that some undergrads can’t handle. Students need some practice self-regulating in high school, or the freedom of college can feel scary or like a chance to go wild. Try letting go of some of your control as your kids get older. Reward them for making smart choices with more freedom and trust. Expect them to push boundaries and screw up. Making a mistake, as long as no one is in danger, shouldn’t be viewed as a disaster. Teenagers need to experience the consequences of their mistakes and be able to put them in context. If they are always under parental guidance, they may miss this important stage of learning self-regulation and control.

5. Teach them healthy techniques to reduce anxiety. Give your child the ability to reduce their own stress so that they aren’t susceptible to more dangerous responses to struggle and failure. Many of my students shared stories of dealing with the pressure of school by taking drugs, binge-drinking, and worse. Help your children make more constructive choices by giving them the tools they need to manage stress. Teach them breathing techniques to call upon when they are anxious or sweating the small stuff. Instill gratitude and an understanding of the big picture. People who are grateful for all that is good in their life cope more effectively when things go wrong. If you’ve fostered these skills, they will be able to handle it when someone like me gives them that dreaded B!

The competitive nature of the college admissions process feeds the tendency to protect and pad a student’s academic record. However, in the long run, protective parents are doing a disservice by not preparing their children for the independence that comes with admission. Building resilience should be part of the college-prep package. If you are already incorporating these strategies, congrats! Your child is well on his or her way toward resiliency and independence