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The Role of Parents in the College Process

The Role of Parents in the College Process
Sarah Honan

My son, a preschooler obsessed with space and drawing everything from planets to astronauts and black holes, does not hold his pencil the right way. He prefers the digital-pronate grasp (i.e. Palmer grasp) to the four-finger-and-thumb grip or the (highly coveted) static-quadruped grip. I have spent more hours than I care to admit learning about these different stages of pencil grip - what they look like, the age at which children should move from one to the next, and how to help your child get there. I’ve built sticker charts, purchased triangular crayons, and even resorted to bribery (M&Ms are especially effective) to get him to practice his “school grip.” And, of course, I’ve worried. What if he never learns to grip a pencil the right way? What if that means he never learns to write properly? What if his true calling in life is to be an artist or a writer and he never realizes it because he’s stuck in this Palmer grasp phase and nothing I’m doing is working? What if, what if, what if… 

Sound familiar? Of course it does, because this is what we do as parents - we worry, we catastrophize. In fact sometimes the only thing that feels constant as a parent is the worry. Will my child be okay? Will they have a good life? Have I done enough? 

This summer I had the opportunity to read The Self-Driven Child: The Science and Sense of Giving Your Kids More Control Over Their Lives. I also was able to listen to some podcasts hosted by the co-authors, William Stixrud, PhD - faculty member at the Children's National Medical Center and George Washington University Medical School - and Ned Johnson - the founder of PrepMatters, a tutoring service in Washington, DC. Both men have spent their careers helping families navigate the teen-parent dynamic and researching the effects of stress on the adolescent brain. In their book, Stixrud and Johnson encourage parents to step back and continuously ask themselves three essential questions: 1) Whose life is it?, 2) Whose problem is it?, and 3) Whose responsibility is it? They argue that much of the stress and existential dread we feel as parents is because we are taking on work that isn’t ours in the first place and, in doing so, we are passing our anxiety and stress onto our children. 

We see this all the time in College Counseling. Well-meaning parents who worry that their child’s college essay won’t be strong enough and engage in over-editing - to the point where the student’s original, authentic voice has almost been silenced. Or the parent who takes over building their child’s college list based on their own perceptions of what makes a “good” school and where their child can build a successful future. The result? Students who often feel disempowered and disengaged - alienated from their college process and, even worse, their parents.  

So what can parents do to support their children through this stressful process, while also protecting their relationship? 

Listen without judgment or agenda. As adults and parents we are often quick to jump into “problem-solving mode.” We see our child struggling and we want to help them. But the college process, like all rites of passage, is not meant to be painless. Students are going to have to grapple with hard questions about themselves - things they’ve likely never had to think about before regarding their motivations, their aspirations, and their failures. This is the work of growing up - the journey toward self-awareness - and there is no fast-pass. As parents, the best thing we can do for our children is to be there to listen as they struggle with these big questions, and normalize that struggle. It feels hard because it is hard. You are not doing anything wrong; this is just what being a teenager feels like. I know you can do this. 

Encourage your student to take the lead. Whether it’s emailing their College Counselor with a question or standing at the front of a campus tour group, encouraging your child to be in the driver’s seat in small ways every day will build their confidence. If you believe they are capable, they will too! 

Be curious. The college process, while stressful, is also a beautiful time for self-reflection and thoughtful discussion as a family. Try to ask open-ended questions where students won’t feel the pressure of delivering the “right” answer. What are you excited about at school? What’s something you learned this week that surprised you? Similarly, instead of giving your opinion on a subject, try to share your observations instead. I noticed at the Drexel visit you sat up in your seat when they talked about study abroad; is that something you’re interested in? Students are much more apt to share when the conversation feels open, low-stakes and driven by genuine curiosity. 

Praise effort, not outcome. So many of the tears we see in our offices over college admission decisions or grades on a report card aren’t about the student’s feelings at all, but their fears about what their parents will feel - disappointment, shame, anger, etc. Praising students for their effort empowers them to keep working through challenges and setbacks.

Celebrate every victory - big and small. As parents it can sometimes feel like we are invisible to our children, but the reality is they are always watching. They notice which achievements are rewarded with big smiles and celebratory dinners and which ones go unmarked. And they internalize these messages about which victories “count.” The best way to make our children feel loved and supported unconditionally is to celebrate all the moments - big and small. Every submitted application, every acceptance letter. 

The hardest thing about my son’s struggle with his pencil grip isn’t the grip at all - it’s realizing that this is his struggle to overcome, not mine. The more we can center ourselves around whose life, whose struggle and whose responsibility these things really are, the more we can step back into the role of supporting parent our kids truly need.