You may not be the one heading off to college, but as the parent of a high-school senior, it can feel like you’re being put through the paces too.

You’re as hopeful, excited and scared as your child (possibly even more). And, let’s face it, at times it feels like you’re in this together. So how can you keep your cool, maintain a healthy distance and toe the line between offering support and creating structure? 

The most important thing you can do is communicate with your child, says Liz Morrison, owner of a mental health practice for children, adolescents and families in New York City. “Just like teens sometimes don’t want to talk to their parents, a lot of times parents don’t want to talk to their teens,” she says. Why? “They’re nervous that they’re going to create a larger distance, push their child away or overstep boundaries.” 

But if you approach your child with the intention of showing that you are there for them and willing to help as much or — brace yourself — as little as they’d like, you’ll be in a much better position to avoid contributing to an inherently stressful process. Here are some real-world tips from parents and experts on how you and your teen can successfully navigate the road from now through college move-in day.

1. Let Your Teen Own the Application Process

While it’s tempting to take the reins — you want to help your child, after all — Denise Pope, founder of Challenge Success, a nonprofit affiliated with Stanford University Graduate School of Education, says you’re better off laying low. “In a year, these kids should be able to go to college and make their own decisions around laundry, courses and food,” Pope says. And if you’re managing their applications for them, you’re not sending the right message or setting a strong precedent. “What we usually say,” according to Pope, “is ‘let the child drive the bus.’” That means having a conversation with your teen upfront about what are the requirements and deadlines, sharing any relevant knowledge you have for them, and then stepping back and remaining somewhat hands-off.

2. Compartmentalize the Conversation

Loosening the reins doesn’t necessarily mean letting go of them completely. If you want to be involved without being overbearing, Pope suggests carving out a half-hour window each week to talk about college applications. Beyond that, though, try to keep the topic off-limits as much as possible.


3. But Know Your Child May Not Want to Talk

Even if you limit the college talk, you might find your teen is not interested in discussing their applications. If that’s the case, don’t force it. Instead, Morrison suggests that your child seek outside support, whether from a friend, family member or a professional, like a high school counselor or a therapist. “What matters is the teen has someone to talk to — it doesn’t necessarily matter who,” she says.

As for you, you’re bound to have opinions and feelings about the application process, and you too should have someone to talk to — be it a friend, a therapist or other parents going through the same experience. Finding an outlet for discussing your concerns and questions will ease your nerves and allow you to be a cheerleader for your child during high-pressure times, which is what they need most from you.

4. Be Upfront About What You Can (and Can’t) Afford

Money and financial aid is one area where parents can and should be involved. Delaying a conversation about this crucial topic could cause unnecessary stress down the line, so it’s important to be clear right out of the gate. “If parents have financial aid requirements or limits on how much they’re willing to spend on college, those should be conveyed in a discussion early on,” Pope says. 

5. Avoid the “Dream College or Bust” Mentality

Sally Rubenstone, a parent, college counselor and senior adviser at College Confidential, says it’s best to promote the idea that your child could attend and be happy at a range of schools rather than focusing solely on the hyper-selective ones. For example, Rubenstone made sure her son identified schools he liked at every tier he was applying to, and he ended up choosing Tulane University over an Ivy League where he was accepted. “I’ve known parents who are devastated when their child is admitted to a ‘lower Ivy,’ as they call it,” she says. “These folks typically do their kids a tremendous disservice, making them feel that they’ve somehow failed despite exceptional accomplishments.”

As a parent of a college-bound teen, your most important role is to listen to your child and find ways to support them. As long as you channel your energies in that direction, and respect the boundaries your child sets, you’ll empower them to put their best foot forward. And isn’t that your main job, today and always?

Interviews for this article were conducted in 2019 and 2020.

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