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The Pressure Cooker Before College: How to Navigate and Actually Help Your Teen

The senior year countdown to college brings out parents’ worries and fears alongside teens’ own anxieties and self-doubt. During this time of escalating pressure and stress in families, parents can fall into common traps that defeat their intention to help and interfere with teens developing capacities that are the foundation for succeeding once they’re at college.

When the dynamics associated with these traps are at play, parents become part of the problem rather than a resource for help. Approaches that seem instinctive, or even necessary, paradoxically derail teens and increase their need to avoid parents. Awareness of these traps and being prepared with positive alternatives empowers parents to brings out the best in teens, install an experience of parents as someone they can turn to later on, and foster psychological growth that makes it more likely that teens will adapt to college.

Common parenting traps:

Trap 1. Overfocus on achievement, getting into a prestigious college, and/or pursuing the right career path.

It’s easy to get caught in the frenzy to get teens into the most competitive college or be blinded by our own vision for them. Teens are embedded in a cultural agenda where success is defined by perfectionism, status, and how things appear. But parents’ attitude and state of mind can either ground them or ramp up the pressure.  

The fear driven need to “secure” our teen’s future sets up a high stakes’ equation with dire consequences if they don’t live up to expectations – not the least of which is catastrophically disappointing their parents and “failing in life.” Here teens internalize a lack of faith – increasing their own insecurity and uncertainty about their future as well as compounding confusion about who they are and who they should be. Further, when teens are overwhelmed and anxious, executive functions shut down — making it harder to stay on track.   

Imposing our own agenda onto teens breeds superficial compliance, passivity, and internal angst whereas supporting teens’ evolving identity fosters sustainable self-motivation, curiosity, and purpose. Through being calm and open-minded, parents can nurture resilience and flexibility in teens — capacities associated with success and mental health — rather than perpetuate the myth that everything rides on a particular decision or path.

Positive alternative:

  • Practice letting go of trying to control the outcome.
  • Have faith.
  • Envision scenarios that differ from what you had imagined.
  • Leverage teens’ own positive motivation and don’t use fear tactics.
  • Focus on being in the present moment  .
  • Work on calming your anxiety and being a responsive, “non-anxious presence” (Stixrud, 2014).
  • Allow easy interactions: make it a point to not have the majority of your contact consist of you bringing up stressful topics, reminding teens to do things, or questioning them.

Trap 2: Seeing teens as a finished product and panicking that it’s your last chance to impact them.

Teens are a work in progress. They will continue to change and mature. If we look back at our own lives or have ever gone to a high school reunion, we’re reminded that our high school selves do not have to determine or foreshadow our future. Exaggerating the stakes at this juncture is a sign of loss of perspective and creates a counterproductive atmosphere of panic, pressure and doom. Alternatively, a climate of acceptance, faith, and possibility is not only more grounded in reality but expands teen’s psychological bandwidth and capacity for recovery and perseverance in the face of a range of outcomes.

Repetitive focus on issues you’ve never had traction with before not only demoralizes teens, but causes parent burnout and erodes the relationship. Alternatively, noticing your teen’s genuine strengths builds on their competencies and successes, helps insulate them when facing weaknesses, and promotes improved performance and attitude.

This approach gives teens a positive experience of being around you before they leave home which not only generates inner security, but will allow them to reach out to you when they’re on their own (since parenting is not over yet). When teens leave home, their relationship with parents has the potential to become more peaceful, less conflictual, and closer — and frequently does. With autonomy a given and physical separation providing needed distance, control struggles become less relevant, parents are forced to let go, and teens are freed up to be more receptive.

Positive alternative:

  • Notice your teens’ strengths and competence.
  • Appreciate the good in your teen.
  • Create opportunities to spend time with teens by offering to do things they like or that they will find helpful (take them out to eat, give them a ride) but on their schedule and not from a position of neediness.

Trap 3. Taking charge of teens: rescuing or being a stand in for them.

Teens on the performance treadmill who “succeed” without incident in high school, but fail to develop a secure sense of self, may crash with less support in college when faced with increasing challenges and disappointment. Without a realistic sense and acceptance of their own strengths and weaknesses, or the skills to deal with inevitable “failures,” teens will be ill-equipped to cope (Margolies, 2013). Taking charge of their lives for them deprives teens of the space to learn how to manage themselves, solve problems, and try out what they can do while still at home.

To be helpful, parents must find a way to have faith, let go of (the illusion of) control, and respect teens’ separateness from them — bearing the feelings of loss inherent to this transition. In an improved parenting model, your teen is in the role of director of his own life — with you as consultant, not owner. This approach not only reduces struggles and empowers parents to be more effective, but positions the relationship to be compatible with a structure that will work when they’re at college.

Instead of imparting wisdom, telling them what to do, or doing things for them — parents’ role is to facilitate teens finding their own way and help them think things through. This involves being a “non-anxious”, non-intrusive, but available and responsive presence — letting teens take the lead about how, and when, you can help.

Teens are more likely to interact when parents show an unbiased interest in their opinions, what they enjoy, and their expectations of themselves — from a stance of curiosity without an agenda — demonstrating respect for their separateness and boundaries.

This parenting approach supports teens’ ability to reflect, weigh options, and make decisions from an internal sense of themselves — cultivating autonomy, identity, and competence (Nagaoka et al., 2015). By promoting the development of internal scaffolding, parents offer teens real protection in the form of greater capacity to master future challenges.  

Positive alternative:

  • Let your teen be responsible for his life.
  • Offer, don’t impose, help and consider timing — following your teen’s lead.
  • Prioritize investing in your future relationship, rather than struggles.
  • Promote autonomy and mastery — the building blocks of self-motivation (Nagaoka et al., 2015).
  • Help teens discover themselves — the basis for good decisions (Nagaoka et al., 2015).
  • Trust that your teen wants his life to work out, is doing the best he can (different from your best) and will find his way.

These traps all involve a loss of perspective — fueled by fear, blurred boundaries, and overidentification with teens. When we’re anxious and overly focused on external goals, it restricts our field of vision — and we lose sight of our teen as a person. Teens of parents who are caught up in these dynamics talk about feeling alone, despite how involved their parents are. They experience their parents as out of touch with who they are and how they feel inside — unaware of what life is like for them day to day, what they care about, how they think and feel, and what’s important to them.

Our values and mindset are transmitted to our children, not by telling them how much we support them, but through our own emotional state and through what we notice, are impressed with, and praise or discourage in them. Unless teens internalize the subjective feeling of being accepted and supported they will be vulnerable to concealing and hiding in fear/shame when they’re in trouble or need help — a frequent cause of unforeseen difficulties at college that spiral out of control. A positive relationship as experienced by teens is the number one way to invest in their future because it allows parents to stay relevant and impact them even when they’re no longer a captive audience.

References:

Margolies, L. (2013). The Paradox of Pushing Kids to Succeed. Retrieved from https://psychcentral.com/lib/the-paradox-of-pushing-kids-to-succeed/

Nagaoka, J., Farrington, C.A., Ehrlich, S.B., Heath, R.D. (June 2015). Foundations for young adult success: a developmental framework. Concept paper for research and practice. Retrieved from https://consortium.uchicago.edu/publications/foundations-young-adult-success-developmental-framework

Stixrud, William R. (2014, November). Teaching the Stressed, Wired and Distracted Teenage Brain. Paper presented at the Learning and the Brain Conference: Focused, Organized Minds: Using Brain Science to Engage Attention in a Distracted World, Boston, MA.

The Pressure Cooker Before College: How to Navigate and Actually Help Your Teen


Lynn Margolies, PhD

Dr. Lynn Margolies is a psychologist and former Harvard Medical School faculty and fellow, and has completed her internship and post-doc at McLean Hospital. She has helped people from all walks of life with relationship, family, life problems, trauma, and psychological symptoms including depression, anxiety, and chronic conditions. Dr. Margolies has worked in inpatient, outpatient, residential and private practice settings. She has supervised others, and consulted to clinics, hospitals, universities, newspapers. Dr. Margolies has appeared in media -- on news and talk shows, and written columns for various publications. Dr. Margolies is currently in private practice in Newton Centre, MA. Visit her website at drlynnmargolies.com.


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APA Reference
Margolies, L. (2018). The Pressure Cooker Before College: How to Navigate and Actually Help Your Teen. Psych Central. Retrieved on June 16, 2019, from https://psychcentral.com/blog/the-pressure-cooker-before-college-how-to-navigate-and-actually-help-your-teen/
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 28 Oct 2018
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 28 Oct 2018
Published on Psych Central.com. All rights reserved.