When you oversee hundreds of students, fielding questions from parents can be overwhelming. Still, you get where they’re coming from.

College admissions is complicated, time-consuming and often mysterious — even for a counselor who deals with it day in and day out.

Renée Auriema, a college admissions counselor and coach in New York City, says when it comes to counselor-parent interactions, the most important thing is mutual respect. “When parents are frustrated, they usually call the counselor first, and they may, in their stress, even blame you [for something],” she says. “When you treat them and their child with respect, you encourage them to do the same, and the conversation can be had effectively.”

Auriema and Marilee Jones, a New York–based college admissions consultant and the author of Less Stress, More Success, weigh in on how to best navigate the conversation when parents ask tricky questions.

College is not easy; we all know that. Students should go into it knowing they are strong enough to do their own applications.

Question: How can I help my child?
Answer: Cheer them on from the sidelines.

The admissions process is like an initiation into adulthood, and the best thing parents, and even counselors, can do is help energize students. “Encourage the next step … and the next … and the next, but try to avoid criticizing,” says Jones. “Otherwise, students might get nervous and freeze up.” Auriema echoes this advice, adding that allowing teens to own the application process empowers them. “You’re giving them strength, and they are going to need strength. College is not easy; we all know that,” says Auriema. “Students should go into it knowing they are strong enough to do their own applications.”

Question: Why does the application process have to be so complicated?
Answer: It’s harder than ever to get into college.

If the last time a parent experienced the admissions process was when they applied to college, they might be overwhelmed by how much has changed. Jones says empathy is usually the best bet. “It’s always a great conversation about how none of us parents worked as hard as our kids or how insane the expectations are now,” she says. Of course, if you’re a young counselor, this may not immediately translate. If that’s the case, just acknowledge your experience. It could be as simple as, “Even in the years since I applied to college, a lot has changed.”

I will tell the truth, though I will tell it in the nicest possible way and couch it in the most agreeable terms.

Question: Can you convince my child to choose college X?
Answer: Unfortunately, I cannot. That would be a breach of trust.

This is a hard one, but as Auriema points out, students’ trust is something she can’t do her job without. If a parent asks this, there’s most likely a disagreement between them and the student about which school is the right school. “I’m not a conduit for views I don’t hold,” says Auriema. “In these situations, I will tell the truth, though I will tell it in the nicest possible way and couch it in the most agreeable terms.” It could be as simple as, “That’s a great school, but the intro classes have hundreds of students and that’s the opposite of what your son told me he is looking for.”

Question: How could they not get in?
Answer: College admissions is not always a straightforward process.

Jones reminds parents that unfortunately college admissions is not always a meritocracy. Not getting accepted is often not a reflection of a student’s intelligence — it can be the result of schools prioritizing their own admissions goals. Just be honest with parents: the admissions process happens behind closed doors and none of us will ever really know what goes on behind those doors.

Question: Why won’t my child listen to me?
Answer: They probably are; they just aren’t showing it.

It won’t shock anyone, least of all the parents of a high school student, to hear that teens aren’t always the most expressive. Jones reminds parents of this and adds that no matter how a teenager is behaving, their world is wrapped up in their parents’ world. “Most teens want to please their parents and make them proud,” Jones says. “Teenagers just can’t always get this across well, because they are still cognitively growing. Now is the time to be patient with them.”