Parents of Teens: The Conversations to Prioritize Before College Apps

“There is an urge to keep pushing kids and teens to be thinking about college even when they’re coping with a really unusual year right now,” says Dr. Abigail M. Stark, Ph.D., a licensed clinical psychologist who treats adolescents with anxiety at McLean Hospital, a major teaching hospital for Harvard Medical School. In the second part of our interview, we discuss the ways parents can contribute to their teenage college applicants’ anxiety or resilience.

  • The conversations parents should prioritize having with their teens before talking about college
  • Why having strong family relationships can be the antidote to teenage anxiety
  • How “snowplow” parents can lead to their teens’ negative outcomes. Are you a snowplow parent?

Catch up from part 1 here, where we discuss back-to-school and reintegration anxiety.

It sounds like it’s really taking baby steps but still exposing them to what’s scary. Many high schoolers are faced with the decision now to either go back to fully in-person school, entirely online, or a hybrid model. What should parents and teens consider when making this decision?

If a child feels too overwhelmed to go in-person or if it’s anxiety driving the decision to stay remote, slowly approach going back to school, whether you’re in a hybrid situation or just visiting the school to see friends little by little. If it’s not anxiety or depression that’s pushing that decision, I think that’s different. For many kids who prefer the remote option, there are oftentimes emotional reasons pulling them to stay home.

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The main idea of the type of therapy that I do is that we actually do want to approach things slowly in a way that doesn’t feel too overwhelming and still challenge some of those thoughts, beliefs, and feelings of, “This is too much for me,” if we have goals to be out of the house and out in the world more and more one day.

For the parents working with their teens planning for college, what are signs that the teen needs a break from college planning? It can be stressful planning for college.

I think that there is an urge to keep pushing kids and teens to be thinking about college even when they’re coping with a really unusual year right now. We’ve all gone through different losses, whether it’s not being able to play sports in the past year or going through things like death and grief. And so sitting down and better exploring and validating that with your teen, to understand what’s going on for them and realizing that this is an unusual year, is important: “We both want to challenge ourselves, and if we push ourselves too much, we can get too overwhelmed and get pretty stuck. We have to find that balance.” It’s not the most satisfying answer of how to find that balance. I think an important thing to keep in mind is just how unusual this past year has been.

You mentioned seeing more and more cases of self-harm and possible suicide in your work. Parents might be worried about this with their kids, but not as vocal about it because it’s hard to talk about. Are there any signs parents should look out for?

What parents can do is allow teens and kids to express all the different emotions they’re feeling and try to create space for that. I think a lot of teens feel a lot of shame around not feeling happy or shame around feeling sad or anxious or feel like, “I should be doing better, I should be able to handle this.” And I think that the hardest thing oftentimes is if a kid goes metaphorically underground and is self-harming or feeling really, really suicidal, and no one knows.

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So once someone knows, they can get in touch with a therapist, and we can start working on different skills to help reduce the symptoms when a kid or teen feels really alone. Try to create an open space to talk about emotions, validate emotions, and normalize that everyone feels sadness and anxiety, and that this is part of life. It doesn’t mean that you’re doing something wrong or that there’s something wrong with you.

Some parents might still be a bit hesitant to get their kids into therapy, maybe because of the stigma. What should these parents know?

It can feel really overwhelming to try to navigate the mental health system and to take the first step towards it if a parent’s never been to therapy themselves or doesn’t know a lot about these different aspects. And so what I would say in terms of encouragement is that there’s a lot of evidence that therapy is really helpful and can create a lot of change for things like anxiety disorders, depression, or self-harm, suicidality. We wouldn’t want any child or teen to suffer alone.

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