The time of year has come when high school seniors are starting to receive letters from colleges. The brief breath of relief of mailing in their final application has given way to the held breath of waiting to hear back from schools. This moment of anticipation is one of the most stressful times in a teenager’s (or anyone who’s been through it’s) life. How to handle that stress is something that weighs on the hearts and minds of parents, educators, counselors, and most importantly, the students enduring this intensely transitional moment in their life.
For many teenagers, hearing back from colleges means facing the final assessment of their high school career, a decision that will determine their next step in life. All their cards are on the table, and all their hard work is being measured. Imagine the pressure of this moment. What might it do to your sense of certainty, sense of security, or sense of self?
When preparing for college, it’s easy to get wrapped up in practicalities and planning, setting goals and meeting deadlines, listing long shots and safety schools. Yet, most people aren’t fully prepared for the emotional aspects of this journey: the shame felt at being rejected by a certain school, the jealousy of having a classmate accepted, the anxiety of being the last friend to get a letter, or the identity crisis sparked by a future that looks different from what was pictured and planned for. Regardless of which schools send their acceptance letters, it’s important to pay attention to the emotional state of any student going through this process and to help them understand, accept, and cope with the feelings that are stirred at this time.
So, how can we as family members, friends, and educators help students navigate this uncertain time? The first thing we can do is recognize the kinds of thoughts and feelings that commonly arise. Unfortunately, it’s way too easy to put ourselves down in times of uncertainty, particularly those involving evaluation. There are many self-critical thoughts or “critical inner voices” that get triggered in graduating teens. Common critical inner voices I’ve heard from high school seniors have included:
- You’re not going to get accepted anywhere.
- Why haven’t you heard from that school yet? You don’t have a chance.
- How can you tell your friends/parents/teachers that you didn’t get in?
- You’re so stupid. They’re so much smarter than you.
- What’s wrong with you?
- It’s over. You’ll never have the future you want now.
- You’re a loser. Everyone will be disappointed in you.
There’s probably no greater universal shift in the foundation of our identity than when we go from being a kid to being an adult. Graduating high school tends to be one of the most formally recognized symbols of this transition. Thus, it’s normal at this time to experience a lot of uncertainty about who we are and what our lives will look like in the near future. It’s not uncommon for our very sense of identity to get wrapped up in the schools we do or don’t get into. Many students experience an identity crisis when certain plans don’t materialize. The loss of an opportunity can feel like losing a version of themselves or a picture of their lives that they imagined or anticipated.
In addition, students are experiencing an intense level of anxiety and pressure, sometimes sourcing from family and sometimes from inside themselves, often from both. This anxiety only heightens when other students start to hear back from schools. Comparing ourselves to others is an easy and immediate way to awaken our critical inner voice. These comparisons can lead students to feel shame, competitiveness, jealousy, embarrassment, or guilt as friends and fellow students find out where they have and haven’t been accepted. If they don’t meet these feelings with compassion and acceptance, they may turn on themselves or act out in ways that strain their friendships, which leads to more distress.
What’s important to understand is that all these feelings are normal. As friends, family, and fellow students, we should be welcoming open conversations about whatever our teenager is experiencing. We should strive to create an environment in which these feelings are acceptable and understood by providing warmth, support, and the space for them to talk freely. Notice if the person is acting different, or if he or she seems more anxious, irritable, exhausted, or down. When we reach out to someone or if they come to us distressed, we should try to be empathetic and offer validation for what they’re going through rather than being argumentative or trying to “talk sense into them.” It’s easy to respond with phrases like “Don’t worry. It’s gonna be okay” or “Don’t be dramatic. Your future’s not doomed.” However, it’s often more helpful to say something like, “I understand that this is hard” or “It can be really scary to go through this.”
If a student is putting themselves down or comparing themselves to others, point out that this is a mean way to treat themselves and is never a way they would talk to a friend going through the same thing. Whether they are feeling shame over not having been accepted somewhere or guilt at getting in when a friend didn’t, try to encourage them to uncover the cruel thoughts (“voices”) they’re telling themselves and perhaps even ask them to express these thoughts in the second person (i.e. “You are such a failure.” “You should be humiliated.” “You don’t deserve to get in.”) Explain that we all have a “critical inner voice” that, like a sadistic coach, is just there to fill our heads with garbage and self-doubt. Encourage them to stand up to this inner critic and to have a compassionate, kind attitude toward themselves no matter what they’re experiencing.
Graduating from high school is already a tremendous milestone to anticipate on both a symbolic and entirely tangible level. The class of 2018 has spent years enduring new and immense pressures to succeed, all with the hope of going on to “better things.” Seeing the pressures teens face firsthand leaves many questioning whether our focus on academic success is flawed. Is it being pushed too far at the expense of our children’s mental wellbeing and ability to lead a balanced life?
All through high school, and maybe even especially before graduation, we should put an equal if not higher emphasis on our child’s mental wellness and emotional education. We should continue to reinforce the message that life has many meaningful parts, and academics is only one of them. Our connections, our values, our ideas, our creative and personal experiences are all of great significance to who we are and the lives we build.
The wait for the college letter is a good time to remind our teenager that there are so many parts of who they are, and no single school or even degree will define that fully. There is no such thing as the perfect school or perfect future, and one of the most useful tools they can carry with them in life is their own self-compassion. Let them know that it’s okay for them to take the time to tune in to how they’re feeling, practice self-care, and seek support at any point in this enormous transition. This is an important message to reinforce whether or not they’re accepted to the school they want, because pretty much every student who leaves for college (even their dream college) is in for a new sea of emotional challenges.
While parents these days are often accused of over-parenting or coddling their kids, teaching them to take their emotions seriously is not a lesson in weakness or defeat, but a lesson in strength and resilience. Emotional intelligence can lead us to more successful lives. Even a highly uncertain time like waiting to hear what your academic future holds can also hold valuable lessons about how you really feel about growing up, becoming more independent, or moving on to another chapter in life. Allowing teenagers to voice their internal struggles can help them out their inner critic and challenge it. It can help strengthen their resilience and enhance their self-compassion. It can be yet another lesson in their emotional education, which is sure to outlast their years in a classroom.