Tips for Parents: How to Really Help Your Teenagers Through College Apps During Covid

“If you have raised a kid that has gotten to the point where they are self-directed enough that they are applying, they are interning, and they are writing essays, the only thing that’s missing from this equation is the calm in the storm and the reassurance and the positive reinforcement that their efforts are going to pay off,” says Elsie Echevarria LMFT, a therapist who helps parents and teenagers stay sane during the chaos of pandemic-era college admissions.

Elsie EchevarriaIn part 2 of our interview:

  • What it means when your teenager doesn’t want to show you her college application
  • A useful and easy-to-implement tip to nourish the parent-child relationship during college admissions
  • The one crucial thing that parents miss when supporting their kids through Covid-era college apps

But first, catch up from part 1 of our interview here if you haven’t already read it.

How can you tell when a teenager is using this skill of parent-speaking?

Being able to read their parent, when is a good time, when is not a good time. Sometimes making an appointment to talk, if it’s something that’s really important to you. And basically telling your parent, “hey, I need to talk to you about something when you’re in a really good mood. When is a good time?” And usually parents will say “now,” and I say “No, don’t fall for it. It’s not now. This is business. This is very important to you.” Set a time because that’s what I tell parents to do in reverse.

Take out the ice cream, make smoothies, go to Starbucks and have the talk and be prepared because the first answer is going to be no. So what do you do? We’re going to be getting “no’s” the rest of our lives. All good communication is manipulation. I need you to do something for me. And I’m going to say it in the most approachable, most sensical, most palatable way to get you to do what I need you to do for me right now. So parents are not immune to good communication. They think they are because they think the answer is no, regardless.

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So if I were a teenager who wants to study art history in college, but both of my parents are only willing to pay for my $200,000 of tuition if I study pre-med, how would you advise me to communicate with my parents?

As the mother of an artist, I feel both sides of this equation. I need to know the parents a little bit before I advise them. Sometimes it’s a negotiation where you double major. Money’s money, so if you want a single major and they are 100%, get over yourself if you’re such an artist and take out a loan. Go to community college. You don’t have to go to Harvard to be an art history major. Big money is a negotiation and college is big money. You want to double major, you want to study an extra year, so that you can get your art in, but they can’t make you be a doctor. They can’t make you go to medical school. But if you want to go to that cushy Ivy League and stay in an apartment sophomore through senior year, you have to negotiate.

Thinking about your experience working with families going through the college admissions process, what have you noticed are the biggest issues they have?

One of the biggest issues is that kids don’t want to show their parents their application or their essays or anything. And the parents are losing their mind.

How do you respond?

I’m like, “look at all that good work you did for your child to be on task developmentally.” Remember when we used to track the developmental milestones and we were so proud that they were ahead? The developmental milestone in teenagers and adolescents is to not need you and not care what you think because their little brain has to be there for them to be truly prepared to launch. A kid who’s calling you from school between periods and asking you to read their essays, maybe community college. But look at the awesome job that you have done growing a young adult. Good on you. Most kids don’t not show their parents out of spite. Most kids don’t not show their parents for self-preservation. They’re already getting feedback from someone they trust that has gotten hundreds of kids into good schools. So I don’t need you. That’s brutal, but I support it.

What’s causing this gap between celebrating the kids’ developmental milestones like walking and talking, but rejecting their teenage milestones of wanting more independence?

It’s kind of like we don’t celebrate the developmental stage of “no.” And we don’t celebrate the developmental stage of biting or running away from you and not turning back. I think the parents’ own attachment issues come into play here. Someone with attachment issues can still manage to grow a child with very healthy attachment. And a child with very healthy attachment loves you, you’re a little bit annoying, but they love you. And they really need you out of their business right here. And that’s good. It’s not like they’re ignoring you, and they don’t like you. I think that’s where the parents’ fear of loss and fear of losing connection and my baby and all their unresolved stuff comes into play. When the parent is really struggling with it, they’ve got something they need to work out probably.

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If you think back to all the tips and advice and counsel you’ve given to parents over your career, what is one that’s effective and easy to implement?

When people get very emotional and upset about a step in the process, that’s where we get hung up: a progress report, a missed deadline, a not following through on a commitment that was supposed to be on the resume.

I really try to get the parents to big picture it, especially for parents who are satisfied with where they are. This doesn’t work for parents who are not satisfied with where they are. But most of the parents are satisfied with where we are. I tell them we’re going to play the video of your life and zero in on all the times you screwed up on all the stupid things that you did and all the fights that you had with your parents. And we’re here now, tell me which one of those mattered or made any difference? Or that you even remember? So big picture: you’re growing a human, you’re preparing a human to leave.

This thing is going to feel unimportant in such a short time. How much damage are you willing to do? Because the damage stays part of the story, the thing does not. Think about the meanest conversation that you had with one of your parents. You remember every word. You probably barely remember why. Or maybe you remember why and you remember the why as being stupid. In the big picture, the mean words, the fight, the not talking to each other, the anger — that always stays part of the story. This other thing is not part of the story. So it’s kind of like circling back to the relationship. When parents are losing it, and I ask them to remember the meanest thing their parents ever said to them and that usually stops them in their tracks because they remember it perfectly.

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