Clinical psychologist Dr. Lisa Damour has counseled teens and families for decades. Still, it wasn’t until her oldest daughter applied to college last year that she truly understood how the process impacts families.
“A lot of what I said to my own daughter is what I’d been coaching parents to say, but there was also a lot that hadn’t occurred to me to say beforehand,” says Dr. Damour, bestselling author of Untangled: Guiding Teenage Girls Through the Seven Transitions into Adulthood and Under Pressure: Confronting the Epidemic of Stress and Anxiety in Girls, whose latest book, The Emotional Lives of Teenagers: Raising Connected, Capable, and Compassionate Adolescents, will be published in February and is available for preorder now.
“Going into the process, I knew it was stressful for teenagers, but I didn’t expect how taxing it is for the adults involved,” admits Dr. Damour, co-host of the podcast Ask Lisa: The Psychology of Parenting. Fortunately, there’s a lot you can do to help make this challenging time more bearable for both you and your child.
How to reduce stress during the college admissions process
1. Focus on what you can control.
A lot of the college process is out of a kid’s hands — such as whether a school needs Classics majors, lacrosse goalies, or cello players this year. “It’s very helpful to remind your child to control the controllables,” says Dr. Damour.
You can say: “There’s a lot that you do have a say over, so put all your energy into those. Whatever the outcome, you’ll know that you did what was in your power to get the outcomes you were hoping for, which will be a comfort to you.”
2. Accept that getting by is good enough for now.
Kids have heard this will be the worst time of their lives, but remind them that it’s a limited period. “It’s reasonable for kids to lower their expectations about how rested and balanced they’ll feel right now,” says Dr. Damour. “Many teenagers have taken the wellness messaging to heart and feel like they should be able to prevent feeling stressed.”
You can say: “It’s normal to feel overwhelmed when you’re in the thick of the application process—any day when you feel like your head is above water is a success.”
3. Take college off its pedestal.
From the perspective of high school seniors, where they go to college seems like a tattoo on their forehead that will be obvious to everyone forever.
I tell them that the period of their life where people will know where they went to college is actually very short. As you get older, it just doesn’t come up. That’s big news for teens, who assume that their entire adult life will be viewed through the lens of where they went to college.
Dr. lisa damour
If they’re skeptical, you can say: “Ask your teachers if they know where other teachers went to college.” You can also say: “College isn’t the best four years of your life — it’s just the next four years. It’s one of many steps on the long path ahead of you.”
4. Reframe grumpy behavior.
“It’s helpful to think of the college process as a miserable roommate who’s moved into your home — a third party who can be demanding and disruptive to family life,” says Dr. Damour. Otherwise, you might ask yourself, ‘Why is my kid making this so hard?’” It’s not your student’s fault, and once they get into college, the terrible roommate will move out.
“In the meantime, don’t take your child’s moodiness personally, and remember that you’ll have years and years of a rich relationship under much less stressful conditions after this.”
You can say: “I get that you’re under a lot of pressure and that the college process is weighing on you. It’s probably better for all of us if you can find a way to be mad at the process rather than taking your irritation out on me.”
5. Take things off their plate.
It would be gracious to lighten your kid’s load during this time. “That might be something small like not having to wash the dishes after dinner or being excused from spending time with relatives who come over to visit,” says Dr. Damour.
You can say: “Until this college thing gets sorted out, we’re glad to help pick up the slack.”
6. Be sympathetic.
You may wish your teenager would stop complaining about how much they have to do and Just Do It. “But the truth is, seniors are probably as busy as they’ve ever been,” says Dr. Damour.
They’re doing their coursework and activities and basically have a part-time job of college applications to layer on top of that. As a parent, your role is largely to validate that experience and commiserate with them.
Dr. lisa damour
You can also share that there have been times when you’ve felt overwhelmed, and somehow the work always got done — and you’re confident they’ll get everything done too.
You can say: “I know that the work of trying to get into college feels endless right now, but I promise you that somehow it’s all going to get done, and you will get through this.”
7. Realize that your role will vary on this journey.
“You’ll function like your kid’s pit crew when things are going well,” says Dr. Damour. “Your kid will be zooming along, expending a lot of energy, and not having much time to talk. You’ll change their tires by feeding them and giving them whatever they need, and then they’ll be off again.” At other times, your kid will need more support. “Your role is more like a tow truck when nothing happens without you offering constant reminders and pulling your child along,” says Dr. Damour. If you’re defaulting to the tow truck mode too often, it may be worth figuring out why your kid isn’t driving the process.
You can say: “I know that you want to go to college next year, but something seems to be getting in the way of you doing your part to make that happen. Are you having second thoughts about applying right now, or is something else making this hard?”
8. Know when helping makes sense.
Even if you think your kid should be managing the college process as independently as possible, it probably involves tasks they have never done before, says Dr. Damour. “For example, this may be the first time your child has to write an important thank you note. It can become a teaching opportunity if they’re doing something for the first time and the stakes are high.”
You can say: “Why don’t you write a draft of the email, and then I can read it and offer some suggestions?”
9. Talk about the cost of college.
Sharing your family’s financial realities is another learning opportunity. “Bringing this up can be uncomfortable, but it will be less stressful for everyone in the long run if you address it head-on,” says Dr. Damour. First, you need to think about what you can and are willing to pay, and then you should communicate that clearly to your child, suggests Ron Lieber, author of The Price You Pay for College, (Listen to the helpful Ask Dr. Lisa podcast episode with him here.)
You can say: “I wish we had a blank check to pay for everything, but knowledge is power. Once you have this information, you’ll be in a better position to make choices.”
10. Dads: Discuss the emotional process.
Boys are likelier to keep their feelings to themselves, and girls tend to talk about them. (Of course, we need to be careful about generalizations: Some boys are big talkers, while some girls shut their doors.)
If you sense that your son is feeling stressed about the process, it can be very helpful for the male role models in his life to talk to him about how the college admissions process felt for them. You can be thoughtfully empathetic and help wrap language around his experience when he’s struggling to put it into words.
Dr. lisa damour
You might say: “I remember going through this — how stressful it was, how helpless I felt at times, and how hard it was to think about anything else. If you have feelings along those lines, that would make sense.”
11. Remind them it’s still okay to have fun sometimes.
Especially when everyone says this is going to be a semester-long nightmare, let your kid know that it doesn’t have to feel that way all the time. “When they have a long to-do list, indulging in a distraction — whether it’s spending a little time gaming, watching reality TV, or texting with friends — doesn’t mean they’re procrastinating or doing a bad job at the college process,” says Dr. Damour.
You can say: Finding a happy distraction is a perfectly reasonable strategy for dealing with all this stress, as long as it doesn’t cause you to fall behind on the things you need to do.”
12. Don’t be more disappointed than your kid.
If your child doesn’t get the news they want, your job is to support them and help them keep it in perspective. “In the past, I unfairly assumed that when parents cared a lot about where their kid got into college, it was because of the parent’s own anxiety about prestige or what they were going to tell the neighbors,” says Dr. Damour.
Having gone through it myself, I can honestly say that I really cared about where my daughter got in not because it mattered to me where she went, but because I knew how much it mattered to her. But I was shocked by how heavily invested I was because I wanted her to have what she wanted.
Dr. Lisa Damour
No matter how sad you are, be warm and reassuring.
You might say: “Of course you’re disappointed. You’ve worked so hard and didn’t get what you wanted. But I know you’re going to be okay, and I know you’re going to land at a place where you’ll thrive.”
More Great Reading:
7 Mistakes Smart Parents Make in the College Search Process