You can spot them congregating in their own fox-holes at school functions or sports events, their heads shaking in a solidarity of exasperation. The parents are the seasoned commanders, their Seniors, the hapless inept enlistees. The prospects look bleak that the mission will be completed due to their teens’ foot-dragging on the single most important step of their young lives… Really? Forgot to sign up for the SAT? Missed the appointment with the college counselor… again?! Refused to get out of the car to tour the campus after driving four hours to get there, for the profoundly inane reason that “I can tell I don’t like the kids just by looking at them?!”
Surely this extremity of parental distress deserves a designated Psychological Disorder of its own, such as PSTSD: Parents of Seniors Traumatic Stress Disorder. But first, two disclaimers: 1) I am isolating parents of college bound Seniors in order to capture a particularly pernicious syndrome in competitive pockets of our country, like our Northeast corridor. Clearly this is not to say that parents of Seniors who are not seeking college admission don't suffer their own plaguing worries. Nor indeed, is it to presume that college is where all Seniors “should” be headed next fall. For many, employment, vocational or service programs meet personal aptitudes, interests and self-development needs far more successfully than would pursuing more education. I’ve isolated the subgroup of parents of college-bound Seniors because their breed of consuming anxiety takes on a life of its own that can be unnaturally toxic to themselves and to their teens, hence worthy of a pseudo-diagnosis. 2) The following is necessarily generic. The actual variability among Seniors is vast, ranging from limp noodles you cannot push, to windstorms of chaotic disorder, to uber-organized paragons whose parents won't be reading this entry. Space does not permit me to do justice to the reality that each Senior is unique, and hence needs a uniquely personalized parenting approach during this pivotal phase.
1) Persistent acute fears that your teen will commit academic hari-kari, destroying any chance for college acceptance.
2) Nightmares of your teen morphing into a leeching parasite inhabiting your couch, removable only on Bulky Waste pick-up day, when you purge all your belongings to move into your Elder Care facility.
3) Patchy hair-loss from tearing it out over your teen’s “what ME worry?!” procrastination.
4) Urgent impulses to strangle those self-satisfied parents who bemoan the hardship of their precious geniuses' dilemma of choosing among their many Ivy League scholarship offers.
5) Delusional convictions that your teen cherishes listening to you drone on about your opinions and advice about what YOU would look for in a college.
6) Cognitive distortions that the college application landscape is the same for your Senior as it was for you, and that, therefore, your views are actually relevant. Given the vastly increased applicant pool, coupled with the Common App, which expedites application to multiple institutions with the simple press of a “submit” key, the odds of getting admitted to one’s college of choice is far slimmer than in our day. Indeed, let's face it; most of us wouldn’t have a PRAYER of getting accepted by our alma mater in today’s competitive environment.
7) Deterioration in family functioning due to a) marital strife over the Senior’s college process, and b) strangulating effect of chronic stress on the household’s joy and peace.
1) Loving our kids more than life itself.
2) Wanting the best flight path for our nest-exiting teens.
3) Low tolerance for seeing our teens suffer disappointment, even when borne of their own poor choices.
4) Low tolerance for our OWN disappointment in our teens’ performance and prospects.
5) Low threshold for our helpless lack of control over our teens’ self-determination, making it difficult to release to our teens those responsibilities that truly belong to them.
6) Difficulty managing our OWN anxiety about our Senior’s college application process such that we push them too hard,- NOT because it’s in THEIR best interest, but because it’s in OURS: the sooner our kid completes the application process the sooner WE are relieved of OUR worry. The problem is, however, that our teens need time to incubate, evolve and gain clarity about their true college needs and desires. When we hurriedly railroad them through the searching, reflective process in order to be “ahead of schedule,” we push them to “be done” before they are fully “cooked.” As a result, the voice they speak out of, in their college essays, will be forced and shallow compared to the more resonant self-possession and depth that the fullness of time permits. In this context, being “on schedule” is in fact what is optimal for our Seniors; not being pressured and rushed to be “ahead of schedule.”
7) Succumbing to the faulty cultural conviction that our success as parents, and the yield of all our investments of love, time and resources is ultimately gauged by our teens’ post high school plans.
8) Hyper-parenting our teens to avoid confronting and mourning their leaving. College acceptance is the counterpart to the balloons and lawn pelicans announcing our babies’ arrivals 17 years ago. Our kids are not gone for good, that’s for sure, but their center of gravity shifts to orbits outside our own.
1) Enabling regressive dependence rather than mature self-sufficiency by "over-functioning” for our teens. The more we do for our teens, the less our teens do for themselves.
2) Brewing resentment in ourselves and in our teens from our fretting and sweating about what is theirs to fret and sweat over.
3) Setting in motion a vicious cycle wherein a) parental hovering drives our teens to defiant noncompliance, which b) incites greater frustration and anxiety in us parents, who respond by c) ratcheting up our oppressive nagging and hovering which in turn, d) provokes more defiant resistence from our teens etc.
4) Resulting deterioration of our parent-teen relationship with mutual estrangement and increased teen self-isolation.
5) Loss of spirited humor and loving regard among family members, the very glue of family unity.
INTERVENTIONS FOR PSTSD
A) GET YOUR HEAD STRAIGHT ON WHAT YOUR MISSION IS (and what it is NOT)
1) To calm the tension-filled atmosphere,- NOT to poison it with your leaking or spritzing anxiety.
2) To provide organization and scaffolding.
3) To be an on-call sounding board, assistant and when requested, an advisor. You certainly can and should offer help; there are many material ways you can lighten their load; e.g. sending out scores and applications, submitting your credit card for testing and application expenses.
4) To offset their inordinate Senior stress with levity, love and larger-picture wisdom so that no outcome is ultimately catastrophic. (e.g. Even if the worst scenario is realized, and all applications are rejected, your teen can embark on a growth promoting “gap year” of community service or work, and launch a college application “do-over” from a stronger foundation.)
5) To seize precious and swiftly fleeting moments for amiable connection, over meals, errands, late night unwinding time.
6) NOT TO be your teens’
-24/7 Personal trainer for college acceptance success;
-Ghost writer for their college essays;
-Typhoid Mary of contagious anxiety
As one college advisor put it: “the trick is to follow your child's lead--if the child asks a parent to "look over" the essay--fine--we just don't want the parent to infuse his or her voice over the child's voice--the student is the one applying to college!”
B) TUNE UP YOUR STRESS MANAGEMENT SKILLS
1) Acquaint yourself with the relaxation techniques of deep breathing, visualization and meditation outlined in my blog post dated 9/2/11.
2) Practice your deep breathing techniques when you’re not stressed, so that you can calm and ground yourself when you are. Being able to lower your revved up idling speed will be a true gift to yourself and to all who share your space. You will be readily heard and heeded because people, particularly our own children, respond more to the salient undercurrent of emotion than to the content of our communications.
3) When in the presence of your stressed-out teen, guard yourself emotionally from getting riled up by his/her agitation. Instead, anchor yourself in a state of caring but detached concern, which enables you to call up your best, most effective resources rather than responding reactively (which usually worsens matters).
4) Rehearse the above through visualization, which is nearly as good as actual, live experience as far as your neurological system is concerned. For example;
a) Practice visualizing your teen blowing into the house in a foul mood or distressed state:
b) Visualize yourself breathing deeply, centering yourself in a place of concerned but detached, loving calm, impervious to the jarring chaos of your teen.
c) Visualize what benign gesture or statement you’d make (or not make) that would communicate your receptive availability rather than your agitated reactivity.
d) Visualize your being spared a needless jolt of distress by not taking the emotional baton your teen may try to press onto you.
e) Visualize your teen’s calming herself down rather than getting further inflamed by a toxic interchange with you.
C) CONSTRUCT YOUR SCAFFOLDING SUPPORTS
1) Calendar: Have your teen open an internet calendar, or get a wall calendar to dedicate strictly to college application deadlines. Commit to the calendar all pertinent reminders and deadlines as well as timing breakdowns so that no detail gets lost in the shuffle. Include:
a) test sign-up deadlines and test dates for SAT, ACT, AP Subject tests etc.
b) application deadlines for rolling vs early vs regular admissions.
c) timelines for art portfolio and athletic/musical/ video completion and delivery.
d) reminders to reach out to coaches whom your teen hopes to be recruited by, in order to 1) arrange visits; 2) send thank you notes and expressions of interest in their college to contacts your teen made and letters 3) to inform them about new achievements, 4) to invite them to sports events in which they can showcase their skills. Especially in the case of DIII athletic recruitment, persistent outreach and vigilant attention to fortifying the connection to coaches can enhance one’s prospects of being tapped by a coach for admission priority.
e) dates for campus visits, tours, info sessions, and interviews.
f) reservations for visits on college websites; including hotel/flight arrangements,
g) reminders to write college visit follow-up letters of interest and intent, to be added to the admission file.
h) reminders to write thank you notes to admissions officers, professors, coaches, alumni interviewers,--anyone with whom your teen had a personal exchange regarding his/her desiring admission to a college.
2) Files -one for each school being considered or applied to: include application requirements, extra essays beyond the Common App (some have as many as 5 additional essays); college newspapers and brochures, informational notes from “due diligence” conversations with current students and alumni: reflections on likes/dislikes, fits/mismatches from visits, which can be incorporated into college-specific essays. (Colleges favor students who go to the trouble not only to visit the campus, but to glean information about their institution’s unique curriculum, student body, culture, learning opportunities etc.)
3) Buoy Up Their Spirits: -Engage in spontaneous acts of compassion and humor. Who else but us parents are best positioned to counterbalance the relentless strains of this life phase? Surprise them with their favorite foods, supportive text messages, long hugs, kind gestures, hilarious internet photos and you-tube videos.
DAMAGE CONTROL: COMMUNICATION DO’S AND DON’TS
1) Unless you want to engender a digestive or eating disorder, do NOT bring up topics pertaining to academics or the college application process during mealtime.
2) Do NOT greet your teens’ friends with questions about their college interests, visits etc; Wherever they go, teens get accosted by the same boring, intrusive grown-up questions. How would you like it if everyone you ran into asked you how much you weighed these days, or how your savings portfolio is doing?...
3) Do NOT badger your teen with college application questions and reminders day in and day out. Save all your questions and concerns for a single weekly discussion, which will not exceed 15 minutes in length (unless your teen explicitly requests more time).
4) Honor your teen’s wishes; do NOT discuss your teen’s college interests with their friends’ parents unless your teen grants you express permission. Most teens prefer to keep their application process private, to avoid plaguing questions and unwanted advice and to preserve their pride should they receive a host of rejections. You do yourself a favor too, because, more often than not, such exchanges leave you misinformed or with a sour taste in your mouth from the inevitable competitive undercurrents.
5) DO spontaneously convey admiration for those treasured qualities in your teen that are “off the grid” or unrelated to anything colleges “look for” (e.g. their wry humor, their being a good friend to a struggling buddy, their litigious tenacity in challenging your curfew restraints…). In this way, you underscore that you cherish the very best of who they are, even though, stunningly, it is not captured by the College Application process (!).
6)Counterbalance the catastrophizing hysteria about getting into the college of one’s choice by emphasizing:
a) it is not a disaster if your teen doesn’t get into his/her first choice; what guarantees ultimate success resides in your teen’s control; i.e. drive, adaptability, persistence, and capacity to tolerate frustration and overcome obstacles.
b) your love and regard remains unchanged, independent of what college is attended. You may think your teen “already knows that,” because you’ve been careful what you’ve communicated about college outcomes. But they’ve overheard your casual discussions for almost 2 decades, in which they’ve gleaned your attitude about the value of higher education, name brand colleges etc. Teens frequently presume you will be disappointed in them if they don’t get into the college of YOUR choice. (Yes, it does show folks,- no matter how much you may think you've discretely "played your cards close to the vest," they know perfectly well which one you’re rooting for.) Explicit correction of their faulty beliefs can clear the air and open channels of communication.
REDIRECT THE ENERGY CONSUMED BY PSTSD STRESS INTO CULTIVATING ALL THAT HAS GONE NEGLECTED, such as:
-your sleep deficit
-your other children
-your love life
-your play time and restorative “off duty” time
-your “callings” and hobbies
Begin now, to reclaim the landscape of your life that was overtaken by parenting your Senior, so that by the time s/he leaves, the seeds you’ve planted are already taking root. Then, in addition to feeling whatever you’ll feel when your Senior heads off next fall (be it bereft mourning, jubilant liberation or both), you’ll have new absorbing engagements to fill the hole left by your teen.