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It’s hard not to let peer pressure and your own feelings get in the way as your child makes a decision that feels so public and important to their future, said Kymberly Spector, a parent of a high school senior in southern California.
“It does feel like, when you’re in it, that this is the biggest decision and the biggest deciding factor of their future,” she said, adding that she strives to keep her daughter’s individual experience a priority over competition with other parents.
Getting into a top-tier school has become harder and more important to the metaphorical family report card, seemingly symbolizing how well we raised our children, said John Duffy, a psychologist based in Chicago.
“For some (young) people it’s going to narrow their self-conception, and for some people it’s going to feel like life is some kind of pass-fail question as opposed to an ongoing essay that you’re always writing,” she said.
That perfectionism can lead to feelings of anxiety and depression, said study author Thomas Curran, assistant professor in the department of psychological and behavioral science at The London School of Economics and Political Science.
The pressure to give your child the best education is real, but the best education does not always come from a popular institution, Heitner said. To help your family get through college decisions in a way that minimizes the stress and maximizes students’ ability to make good decisions for themselves, experts recommended adults give these gifts to their kids.
A return to your values
“Inevitably parents will say, I want them to be happy, I want them to be well-rounded, I want them to be good citizens,” Duffy said. Once they get past their initial impulse to keep up with their neighbors, “hardly ever do I hear them say I want them to go to the best college they can, and I want them to make the most money they could possibly make.”
How do we pass that mindset on to kids? Heitner said it is important to focus conversation not just on how to get into an elite college, but more on the life they want to have and the many ways they could get there.
Social media has broadened the scope of who gets updates about our kids, and there is a lot of flexing that can take place there, Heitner said.
The online one-upmanship can increase pressure, “even sometimes undercutting kids’ opportunity to share their own news on their own time line,” she added.
Heitner advised that kids should never be posted about without their permission, and that during the college admission process “people should consider taking a break from social media — and their kids may want to as well — because all of these posts are stressing them out.”
Reassurance of unconditional love
The unfortunate truth is that much of the pressure around college is out of families’ hands, and parents may be eager for their children to do their best academically as opportunities appear to grow more competitive, Curran said.
But it is crucial to communicate those expectations with unconditional love and support, he added.
What kids need to hear is “it doesn’t matter the outcome … no matter what happens, you are loved,” Curran said.
The joy of learning
We can also help our kids rekindle the joy of learning that can be often lost by the focus on test scores, rankings and admission rates before they go off to their next phase of life, Curran said.
Instead of focusing on school rankings, Duffy suggested taking study breaks with your kids to do something you enjoy together — like watching a show that makes you all laugh. You can also teach joyful learning by example by getting your kids involved in the fun things you are working on, like cooking, music or language, Curran added.
It’s a gift that can make your academic life both more enjoyable and more successful.
“If you throw yourself behind your education, you’ll enjoy it, but you will also reap the benefits,” Curran added.
Trust in your child’s choices
Instead of a marker of their success, it can help to think of higher education as the first decision your child is making as an adult, and “the more you show that you have confidence in their ability to do it and do it well, the more successful they’re going to be,” Duffy said.
They are going to have a lot of choices to make, and allowing them to feel out their own identity and showing that you trust in their intuition will empower them in the future, he said.
“To the extent that kids are allowed to follow their path, I never see those kids come back with a busted up freshman year,” Duffy said.
Know that the best fit may not be highest-ranked
What research has shown — but our ego and anxieties can obscure — is that the prestige of the college a student attends is not necessarily a direct indicator of their success in life, Heitner said. Some people go to a top university without achieving their goals, just as people who attended community college can go on to have the lives they dreamed of, she added.
Duffy suggests taking ranking out of it and focusing instead on what is a good fit. Sometimes where the school is located makes a big difference, or its size or the academic programs it offers — most often it’s whether the people around you inspire you and connect with you, Duffy said.
No matter what college your child attends, they “cannot have failed at life at 17,” Heitner said.
And whatever choice they make, families and students should remember there is always an opportunity to change plans or try something new, she said.