This article by Dr. Tony Di Giacomo originally appeared on River Journal.
On the Road to College, one of the issues that affects students and parents alike is stress. Parents look into the unknown, concurrently feeling optimistic and anxious about what is to come. Students view the future with excitement and trepidation about college. Stress has some merits, after all its existence is grounded in our biology and ability to survive. To this end, stress helps us understand how we feel about things that matter. However, being balanced and mindful takes information, knowledge, and practice. Done right, stress can be an indicator of something’s import, not a controlling force.
For parents, uncertainty and regret seems to be dominant components of stress. From my experience, uncertainty stems from the compassionate perspective that we want the best for our child and have endeavored since their first breath to ensure their survival and ability to thrive. From late night infant feedings to countless miles of carpooling, and from separating in kindergarten to the moment of watching your child enter the dorm for the first time, we as parents put everything into our children. Where we can turn these feelings into a positive construct is by separating how we feel what the child needs in terms of guidance. Often, lengthy lectures about making the most of one’s future—that college is competitive, that the job market is hard—does not spark observed change in our children. Many parents cannot resist the urge to lecture; it’s cathartic to us and also our way of doing our best to inform. A tip: Try to communicate clear expectations and boundaries, whether pertaining to cell phone usage, video games, or time spent on homework. Also identify clear consequences, whether losing the phone for 24 hours, or missing out on a social event. Just as focusing a light at its source is what makes a laser powerful, focusing on a child’s day, not their abstract future, is a more powerful way to direct them with a similar precision.
For students, especially amid their oversharing culture, stress is often a Snapchat away. Because most students have an unhealthy relationship with their phones, sparked by dopamine-inducing alerts, which amplifies their social stress, this is one device for which a parent should communicate clear boundaries. No phone during homework (no student needs it, despite their pleas), and no phone after a certain time. Create a family charging station in a communal area like the kitchen. The phone should be a reward for work, not a distraction from it. This approach will ensure their homework time is focused and help them disconnect from sharing comparisons, whether regarding grades or accomplishments, or where they have applied or been admitted to college.
Students also feel stress due to unspoken expectations, and since they could not fully appreciate the magnitude of college admissions as an opportunity to increase the chances of doing and going where they want, you should consider college visits in a more measured way. Resist visiting colleges that may be, in the end, out of reach. Instead, start local and grow outward from there, helping them cultivate a sense of what will be a positive experience and place to call home for the next four years. For this reason, I recommend that families visit colleges only after receiving a PSAT score, since that score and the GPA can be one indicator for filtering colleges. The fact remains: Anyone can go anywhere from any college. The reason we are stressed is that sometimes, the road after college may be just a little bit easier when going to a better–fitting college.