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Waiting for College Letters: How to Help Your Teen Cope

Four tips to help your teen through the stress.

Key points

  • College applications always feel significant but may feel even more important this year due to the pandemic.
  • The admissions process is a growth opportunity for teens as they learn to take risks and reflect on their interests.
  • Tips for supporting teens through the process include validating their feelings and reminding them that the decisions are not a reflection of their self-worth.
 Iakov Filimonov/Shutterstock
Waiting is the hardest part.
Source: Iakov Filimonov/Shutterstock

For high school seniors and their parents, spring brings the anxiety-infused culmination of the college application process, awaiting the colleges’ responses, making important decisions, sharing the news ... and managing the range of emotions that arise. Hope, disappointment, excitement, grief, anxiety, fear, envy, pride—you know, all the EMOtions.

Having endured this process in my home and having spent my career treating teens and their families in New York City, I have an intimate familiarity with these tensions.

While this period of waiting is always stressful, it’s especially hard now, during a time when we’re already so starved for certainty and concrete plans. The global pandemic, hybrid learning, political tensions, social unrest, etc. leave us all yearning for certainty.

Unable to plan, unable to rely on the usual seasonal rhythms, traditions, and schedules, this pervasive unpredictability drives our anxieties through the roof (which we are grateful to have over our heads). Each day we wake up anticipating the change-du-jour, adapting and re-adapting to new norms that never actually feel normal.

Clinging to whatever semblance of control we can find over our daily lives, we seek to prepare as best we can for the future. So, while college applications always feel significant, this year, they may feel even more so.

With that in mind, here are four helpful reminders to help you maintain a mindset that will help to support you and your teen during this time.

1. Reward the Process

Research reflects that perseverance and internal motivation are crucial factors toward life satisfaction and fulfillment.

Thus, as we assume our usual goal-driven, outcome-oriented mindsets, we must be careful not to overlook or minimize the many emotional learning opportunities, essential character building, and resilience that occurs during the college application process.

Regardless of outcomes, merely going through the process is an opportunity for your teen to grow. They learn to take risks, tolerate vulnerability, explore, consider future possibilities, and reflect on their interests, desires, and curiosities. These are all invaluable developmental muscles that they’ll exercise throughout their lives.

I encourage you to reward yourself and your teen for undertaking these emotional challenges and take some time to recognize your growth throughout the journey.

2. Exercise Validation and Tolerance of Your Teen’s Emotions (and Your Own)

College marks a big developmental milestone: the prospect of separating from one’s family and the symbolic close to the first 18-year leg of parenting. The process is full of internal conflicts, like loss and hope, separation and connection, endings and beginnings—ambivalence and anxiety.

These seemingly conflicting feelings are confusing and uncomfortable for our teens. Watching them express these feelings can be equally if not more uncomfortable for parents.

Often our older, "wiser," and caring parental responses may intrude on our teens’ experience.

Our well-intended default responses often include trying to convince them out of feeling what they’re feeling: “You should feel happy that _____,” offering silver linings, “At least you don’t have to deal with ______," or over-identifying with them, “This is just like how I felt when I applied to college." These tactics can feel minimizing, invalidating, and unrelatable to our teen, causing increased discomfort instead of soothing it.

So while it may feel insignificant or unproductive, many teens benefit and appreciate you just listening, plain and simple. Allowing them a safe place to express their disappointments and fears, sort through their thoughts, and "sit with the feelings" is often enough.

It may feel painstakingly simple and uncomfortable to say to your unhappy teen, “I know this is disappointing,” or “This sucks!” Yet, as we label, tolerate, contain, and validate feelings, we help teens move through and ultimately get over them with greater ease.

Many parents I know believe that by doing so they are allowing over-indulgence or encouraging wallowing and self-pity. I assure you that this is not the case. Listening to and validating our teens’ feelings are how we convey that we see, hear, and understand them. Isn’t that what we all need?

3. It’s Not Personal

Teens pour their heart, soul, and time into college applications. When they receive responses to these applications, they often mistake the response they get as a reflection of their worth.

We all have a fundamental human need to be accepted, and we all suffer from a deep-seated (and often unconscious) fear of rejection. Naturally, the prospect of either cuts straight to the core.

Yet, we must remember (and remind our teens) that a college acceptance or rejection is not a testament to your teen’s character, value, or worth. A college acceptance or rejection is solely a reflection of how well their application fits in with what the college needs.

Our prospective college students are human beings, not applications, and it’s not their self-worth that’s being judged.

And, since words matter, I encourage parents and students to use language like "admitted" or "not admitted." These terms are less emotionally charged.

4. College Is a Chapter of Adulthood, Not All of It

What does that mean?

Well, parents and teens alike often view going to college as a sort of "finish line." As in, once they get into college the rest of their life will start to sort itself out.

If you’ve ever been to college yourself, you know that’s not true. Getting admitted to college is great, but college is not a self-contained adventure. It’s merely a common first step on the road to full independence and adulthood.

It’s also important to remember that growth and life are not linear. School can trick us into thinking that growth and learning is a linear process. You get lulled into this idea that the way life works is you do one class, then you do the next one, and you keep getting better and smarter until you finally become the smartest, most successful version of yourself ever.

Life is messy and complicated and sometimes we go backward before we go forward. These are lessons school doesn’t teach us.

It’s important to try and create this perspective for our teens. College is not what will define the rest of their lives, it’s simply part of the process.

In keeping with the above, college decisions may offer some reassurance about the future. They may give a much-needed sense of predictability.

The pandemic feels interminable—no concrete end in sight. Your teen’s college decision may connote the end of a phase for them and the prospect that everything will be OK.

As you help your teen navigate through this process, remember that it is a process and try to keep that in perspective for them as well. We can make decisions like where to go to college feel so huge and all-important. The more we can set small goals and reinforce important day-to-day lessons, the less catastrophic the arrival of a college letter will feel.

While it may seem like a big deal, try not to let yourself get caught up in making it so significant, and model that behavior for your teen as well.

More from Dana Dorfman MSW, Ph.D.
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