As I sat with a group of school psychologists, administrators, and educational consultants recently, the discussion turned to concerns about students' readiness for college. As it happens, many of us are seeing a sharp increase in freshmen returning home after flaming out. The reasons for this trend are complicated, but they boil down to this: we're preparing teens to get into college, but not to survive or thrive once they get to campus.
One problem is that the focus of high school has become building the best transcript possible. That includes acing tests, writing term papers worthy of Masters theses, and prepping them for SATs by ninth grade. So caught up in the achievement frenzy, many parents in my practice help with (AKA do) their high school students' assignments, edit (AKA rewrite) their papers, and turn a blind eye to (AKA tacitly or even, yes, expressly condone) cheating. Others hire teams of tutors to provide the scaffolding they think their teens need to "succeed."
But we're missing the point. We need to make a major shift in appreciating and focusing on the journey -- helping high school students learn the skills they need -- rather than the destination -- a "good" college. Once they get there, they have to be able to manage their lives, do their own assignments, use a repertoire of effective study strategies, solve problems and, especially, deal with their emotions.
With many families anxiously awaiting the final word on college acceptances, a wonderful opportunity is on the horizon. Although it may seem disastrous if kids are rejected from their top choice schools, I believe that having to cope with such a major disappointment while still at home can serve them well -- but only if their parents react in ways that promote emotional growth.
The college process evokes a slew of understandable parental emotions, which can take awhile to process. But teens take their cues from their parents' indelible initial reactions -- both words and body language. That's because regardless of how they may act, more than anything else kids want to please their parents and make them proud. So "bad" news is a double whammy that requires them to manage their own disappointment while also dealing with their parents' reactions.
How can parents help? First, by keeping in mind that rejection doesn't destroy dreams. That way, they don't communicate that this is a catastrophe. Second, by taking their own emotional temperature so they don't convey blame, anger, or shame. Three, by giving teens the freedom to consider this experience their own rather than burdening them with extra anxiety and pain. Kids have to hear that their parents are disappointed FOR them, not IN them. Four, by giving teens permission to feel whatever they feel. They're entitled to be sad, to wallow in dejection, and even to wonder why they weren't accepted. Telling them how great they are may make parents feel better, but usually doesn't soothe rejected students.
After a few days of teens hosting their own pity parties, parents can help them to move on by encouraging them to look to the future. A positive attitude models that "When one door closes, another opens." How teens go about assessing their options reinforces their problem-solving skills. What information do they need to make the wisest decision? How should they plan to get it? What might they communicate to schools if they were wait-listed rather than rejected?
Parents can convey that there's no perfect school by reminding teens that success always depends on them making the most of their opportunities. This is also when parents can share stories of how they survived and maybe even thrived when they didn't get the sorority or fraternity bids they wanted or were unemployed after being fired. Knowing that their parents haven't always succeeded or gotten what they wanted on the first try gives teens much-needed perspective.
Learning resiliency -- how to bounce back from even the most difficult times -- is what helps students to manage their lives successfully once they get to college and beyond, as no one gets through life without losing to a competitor, being overlooked for a coveted internship, or getting dumped by a romantic partner. Although it's excruciating to watch teens struggle, it's far better for us to encourage them to master these vital skills while they're still at home.