Preparation for college receives a great deal of attention from senior students and parents. But less known are the underlying psychological dynamics that make this time particularly stressful. Identifying and understanding these dynamics will help reduce conflict, procrastination, fighting, anxiety and fear.
Students and parents each go through their own unique struggles which often occur simultaneously. Some of the more common dynamics initially occur independently, but over time will reinforce and exacerbate the other.
For adolescents, the psychological preparation for separation (which begins in early childhood) will culminate in the actual physical separation following high school. The series of gradual breaks from the family, leading to healthy independence and autonomy, serve as reassuring tests for kids to see that they can make it on their own. These tests can be as seemingly insignificant as sleep-overs, weekend trips with friends’ families, getting involved in clubs, sports or other after school activities. Larger tests include experiences like summer sleep-away camp, foreign exchange opportunities, school trips to Europe , and other youth leadership groups that involve overnights (Boy Scouts, RYLA, etc.).
The anticipation of the break from the family (especially for those who will be living on campus) creates conflicting needs: the need for autonomy vs. the need for family involvement and support. In order to make the transition easier, children will sometimes interpret parental involvement as meddling. They will interpret parental suggestions as judgments and criticisms. They will interpret limit-setting as nit-picking and smothering. This prepares students to leave the house thinking “I am so ready to leave” as opposed to “how I am going to make it on my own?” There is a tendency for kids to exaggerate their sense of independence and competence while also exaggerating their perception of being treated like a child at home. As students begin seeing themselves as more independent, they become increasingly sensitive (and resistant) to parental direction. This is not the time that parents should stop parenting—it’s just the time that kids want it to stop.
Parents go through their own set of challenges in preparation for separation. The realization that their child is about to move to a lifestyle requiring greater responsibility and independence can cause reactions ranging from mild apprehension to sheer panic. The underlying fear is that the child is not ready; that we have not finished “parenting” the child to completion (i.e. perfection). Issues pertaining to responsibility, decision-making, and accountability become paramount. Any behaviors that seem indicative of irresponsibility, immaturity, and poor decision-making skills heighten the underlying fears. Small examples of irresponsibility are interpreted through the larger, underlying fears. This is usually why conflicts occur as parents are focusing on the larger issue and kids only see nit-picking and overreacting to a smaller issue.
The more kids pull away, the more parents see them as regressing and irresponsible and try to get more involved. The more parents get involved and try to change their child’s behavior and help them grow, the more the kids pull away.
To resolve this counter-productive cycle, both parents and students must see what their real concerns are, and ideally be able to talk about the larger issues directly.
This is just one of the common transition difficulties that occur between parents and children. What about the real procrastination related to applications? What about the inability to decide on a school/location/program of study? What about the general anxiety level? What about other causes of conflict at home?
If you would like to discuss these or other questions, please feel free to contact us:
Park Ridge High School Guidance Department (ext. 5500)
Andrew Yeager, Student Assistance Coordinator (ext. 5504)