How Do I Get My Teen Excited for College and Next Steps?

Graduating high school seniors may not be excited about college after all of the pandemic disruptions. But Parents Ask Your Mom columnist, Emily Edlynn, Ph.D., says parents can help their teens find optimism and prepare for college and other big life transitions.

Mom helps teen cope with college decisions
Photo: Parents | Zoe Hansen

-College Bound and Down

My teen, now a senior, is all set to go off to college this fall. But with COVID and the pandemic, their high school experience wasn't exactly what they expected, and they're a bit down on the whole college adventure thing, too. How do I get them excited about this next stage of life, which should be exciting and fun?

—-College Bound and Down

When looking at the numbers, high-schoolers are undoubtedly less ready for college because of how COVID disrupted their education and their lives. College registrations have dropped, and professors have found their first-year undergraduates the least prepared ever. In short, it's a lot. No matter where a child was in their education in 2020, they missed out on academic, emotional, and social growth that they are still recovering.

I share all of this to reinforce that your child's experience is quite understandable. As parents, we can have a wider perspective about how life is full of phases, and there's always hope for a better future. Teens have a more shortened sense of time than we do, however, and may struggle with embracing optimism. You are on the right track in that helping your child mentally prepare for this new chapter with more balanced thinking will serve them well on many levels. But this requires strategy beyond telling them, "You should be so excited!"

Step One: Lean Into Where They Are

Your child is more likely to shift their way of thinking and feeling if they feel understood by you first. I often hear from teens in my office how unhelpful it is when parents project pervasive positivity. They just don't believe it, and it shuts them down to the possibility that they could think more positively. I don't know how much you have discussed reasons for your child's lack of excitement, but for any parent managing this at home, find that moment when your teen is in the mood to talk, and ask.

As anyone who has met a teenager knows: how you ask matters. They are super-sensers of any agenda, so work on your own mindset to be as open and curious as possible, instead of ready to explain all the reasons they should be so excited. Do your detective work around what exactly is interfering with your teen looking forward to college. Do they have specific worries you could provide support around, or is it a general anxiety about leaving home? Or both? Listen like you mean it!

Step Two: Insert Optimism, Carefully

The science of optimism is clear: it contributes to everyone's health and wellbeing. My scientific training won't allow me to buy into the "manifesting your reality" approach, but there is evidence that thinking more optimistically changes our behaviors in positive ways. For example, a teen who feels more positively about going to college may present in a more relaxed way that appeals to peers, which helps them meet new people early on. Having a social network from the beginning can make a big difference in their college experience.

The trick with optimism, though, is that positive thoughts and expectations need to be rooted in reality. For example, saying "you're going to meet the best friends of your life in college!" probably won't be helpful because you can't actually promise that. If a teen is focused on the pain of leaving friends they have known their whole lives, this empty promise doesn't make them feel better. As usual, letting the teen lead with their own ideas works best since, at their age, we are still parents who don't know much.

Instead of cheering them on with promises you can't keep, help them come up with their own reasons to be optimistic: "What do you think the good parts of going to college will be?" "What are you looking forward to the most?" If their brains have been stuck on the reasons they don't want to go, this can help un-stick their thinking. I know parents may be scared to use what we call in therapy a paradoxical approach (reinforcing what we actually want to change), but it can be effective. For example, "So there's no good reason to go to college and nothing to look forward to. Nothing fun or exciting is possible when you're at college." This can get them to balance their own thinking instead of feeling pushed by us to do so (a sure-fire recipe that they will push back).

Take Action to Change Thinking

Instead of talking about what will be fun about college, do the fun stuff now. Find out what feels fun to them about preparing, and make that a priority even if early in the summer. If they like the idea of decorating a new dorm room, go shopping. Many colleges make an effort to introduce roommates over the summer, so if your child hopes for a good friend in their roommate, figure out how they can connect even if it involves a road trip. Often, we have to act first before we can change how we think and feel.

Keep Space for All the Feelings

As you support your almost-undergrad this summer, expect an emotion pendulum. The more they feel like they can express each side of the pendulum, the more they won't get stuck in the more difficult emotions and pessimistic thoughts. As much as you want your child to be excited and you will do your part to encourage positive thinking, if they feel permission to feel whatever they need to in the moment, that's also helping them prepare by working through the whole range of the emotional experience. Again, the goal is to encourage balanced thoughts and emotions—realistic, but not all positive or all negative.

The Bottom Line

Even without a pandemic paving the way, this transition from high school to college can be overwhelming in the best of circumstances. Although our adult brains can clearly see how high school is a brief scene in the movie of our lives (and often one we wish we could erase), teens do not have the benefit of this wisdom and perspective. No matter how much we offer it, they are developing their own. The more we can encourage and support balanced ways of thinking and feeling about this major life transition, the more prepared they are to do it on their own when they are in a dorm room instead of at home with us.

Submit your parenting questions here, and they may be answered in future 'Ask Your Mom' columns.

Emily Edlynn, Ph.D., is the author of The Art and Science of Mom parenting blog and the upcoming parenting book Parenting for Autonomy. She is a mother of three from Oak Park, Illinois, and a clinical psychologist in private practice who specializes in working with children and adolescents.

Read More Ask Your Mom columns here.

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