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Applying to colleges can lead to emotional burnout. Parents should do 8 things

Kelly Burch May 2, 2023, 11:45 AM EDT

Madeleine Vieira. Courtesy of Madeleine Vieira

  • Madeleine Vieira says stress around college admissions is higher than ever.

  • Teens and their parents are all affected, she says.

  • She suggests talking to teens about different paths to success.

This as-told-to essay is based on a conversation with Madeleine Vieira, a clinical child psychologist. It has been edited for length and clarity. Whether they're celebrating acceptance to their dream school, facing the reality of the cost of college, or opening yet another rejection, teens can get overwhelmed by the college-admissions process.

As parents, we can (hopefully) see that college is just one part of our kids' lives. We may even see that navigating the stress of college admissions can give kids tools for coping with uncertainty and building their resilience. Yet it's tricky for teenagers to have that perspective during a time that can feel like a referendum on their worth. Here's how to support your child through the admissions process and help yourself along the way. Validate their feelings When you're dealing with adult problems, stress over college can seem a bit silly. But for your child, the pressure and anxiety around admissions are very real. Recognize that and validate their emotions. Encourage them to name each one — fear of failure, feelings of inadequacy, or guilt for getting into schools that others were rejected from — to process their emotions.

Talk about the different paths to success If many of your child's peers are applying to high-stakes schools, they might think that's the only way to be a success. Talk about the different paths to creating the life that they want. Reinforce that your child is learning lessons that will help them grow, no matter what the admissions letters say.

Celebrate milestones in the process Applying to college is a long process that can lead to emotional burnout and fatigue. Celebrate the successes along the way, whether that's getting applications done, having answers from all the schools they applied to, or committing to a program. Remind your child that they've put in hard work and that alone is monumental.

Emphasize resilience Not getting into a coveted school can feel like a personal failure. But setbacks are part of life. Encourage your child to cope with them in a healthy way by spending time with friends, doing a hobby that they love, or talking to others who are in the same situation. Talk honestly about finances Money plays a big role in which schools your child can attend. Talk openly and honestly with your child about finances and what you can or can't afford. Discuss the trade-offs that your teen might need to make. For example, attending a state school may lead to less debt but might mean missing out on certain opportunities at elite private schools.

Don't project your own expectations Choosing a college is often the first major adult decision our children make. You must let them do that without projecting your own expectations onto them. Instead, encourage them to tell you what they want, and support them in that.

Model healthy coping The college process is no cakewalk for parents, either. Following the steps above can help Mom and Dad. Name your emotions, find healthy ways to cope, and remind yourself that you're making your way through. Talking to other parents can help you feel less alone.

Know when to seek help

While stressing about college is normal, some teens may start to display signs of anxiety or depression. If you notice changes to your child's behavior, reach out to a mental-health professional. Sometimes, seeking mental-health care can be an important part of coping with the emotional and mental-health challenges of the college-admissions process.


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