College decision season is in full swing and all over the country seniors and their parents are hoping for good news, bracing for disappointment, and facing big decisions of their own. College Confidential sat down with Meghan Leahy–mom of three, parenting coach, author of Parenting Outside the Lines and a regular columnist for the Washington Post’s parenting column–to talk about how parents can support their college-bound children through the ups and downs of college admissions, and especially decision season. Meghan had so many great tidbits of advice to share - and a few mantras that will stick with me for a long time.
CC: It's mid-March, which means college decisions are either out, or will be coming out over the next few weeks. What can parents do to support their children if they don’t get the admissions results that they’d hoped for?
ML: Well, I have an 18 year old at home, so I know. I totally know. My daughter got rejected from her first choice early decision. Outright rejected. When she came downstairs, she said to me, “Mom, I’m so disappointed, I didn’t get in.” And I said to her, “I’m so disappointed too.”
Parents will have their own disappointment and frustration to manage. My mantra is, “It’s not at all personal.” I mean, it’s completely personal, but also it’s not at all personal. I tell my daughter, colleges are looking to fill a slot for a ___ from ___ who can ___. Fill in the blanks. If you don’t get accepted, it’s really not about you. If you do get accepted it’s not about you either. But it feels like it is.
CC: That’s so true, it’s not about you either way. College admissions is like Mad Libs – you get in if you can fill in the blank.
ML: 100% percent!
CC: You said something interesting I want to go back to. You said, “Parents have their own emotions to manage,” about college decisions. I definitely can understand that, and I see it in other parents. But how much of their own emotions do you think parents should share with their kids, and how much should they keep to themselves?
ML: The most important thing is to match the emotion that your child brings to you, and then bring all the other emotions to another adult. Like, when my daughter said “I’m so disappointed,” I said to her, “I’m disappointed too.” And then, later, I said to my husband, “I hope that school has a scandal.” [Laughs] I don’t really, of course. But I can go to him with my anger. I wouldn’t say that to her.
CC: That’s an interesting way to think about it – let me make sure I got what you said. Parents should match whatever emotions their child is having, but don’t insert new ones. So if your child is disappointed, show them that you are disappointed too, but save your anger to share with someone else...But what about if your child is angry? Do you show them your anger, and save your disappointment for someone else?
ML: Well, if your child is angry, you can just say, “I can understand why you're angry.”
CC: So, validate…
ML: Yes, validate whatever emotions they’re having. There are no off-limit emotions. But don’t say “I’m so angry too!” and start calling admissions or other parents and saying, “What the...!”
If your child says, “I can’t believe so-and-so got in, and I didn’t!”–inside you might be thinking “What? How did that person get in?” But to your child you just say, “I can see why that’s really confusing.” Hopefully, parents have been talking to their kids this way all along. If you haven’t, it’s harder to start having these conversations now.
CC: That’s another really good point. These kinds of conversations have to start early. What advice would you give to parents of sophomores and juniors–parents whose kids are just starting out in the college admissions process–to make it easier to have these conversations later?
ML: The thing to remember is, at the end of the day, everyone is going to be fine. Where you go to college doesn’t really matter that much. Seriously, no one even cares that much anymore. Some kids aren’t even going to college. From the beginning, the conversations shouldn’t be about narrowing in on one school, but on finding the best options for your kids. Think about whether your conversations are making things narrower, or opening options up. And in our family, we always say, about everything, “We pick people and places that pick us.” But it’s harder to say these things if you haven’t been saying them all along.
CC: I love that. Talk about a mantra: “We pick people and places that pick us.”
ML: It’s true! If a college doesn’t choose you, another one will, and that’s the one to go with anyway. We don’t spend time chasing people or places that don’t choose us. The other thing for parents to do is to be really clear from the beginning about what’s possible. Don’t say, “You can apply wherever you want,” and then say, “Well, that one is too far, or that one is too expensive.” If there are things that are deal breakers, be upfront about them from the beginning.
CC: That makes sense. It’s better to know any barriers early, to avoid disappointment or hard conversations down the line.
CC: Well, I feel like I could ask you a million more questions about that, but I know we have to wrap up soon. But one last thing - is your daughter still waiting, or does she know where she's going yet?
ML: Oh, we’re still waiting! She’s gotten into three schools so far, so she knows she’s got options, which is good! But she applied to 13 schools. So we’re definitely still waiting.
CC: I’m glad to hear she has a few good options already. Good luck! I hope she ends up somewhere she’s really happy.
ML: Me too. That’s the most important thing. And I think she will end up somewhere she’s happy. I just hope it’s not in California. [Laughs]
CC: It’s funny that you say that, because one of the questions that I scrapped because we ran out of time was, “What advice would you say to a parent whose kid wanted to go to a school across the country, if they didn’t want them to go that far away?”
ML: Well, honestly it depends. It depends on the family and it depends on the kid. But it’s important to know what’s real and what’s the story you’re telling yourself. Do you not want them to go far away because you don’t feel like getting on a plane? Or will travel be a real financial burden? Or are you worried about the distance for other reasons? If it’s financial, you can say, “If you choose to go to school in California, we can only afford one flight home during the year. So that means you’ll need to stay there for Thanksgiving. Are you ok with that?” And then let them think about it and decide. But if the problem is just that you don’t want to get on a plane, well, maybe you need to get over that. You have to ask yourself–what is reality, and what is a “me problem?”
CC: “What is reality, and what is a ‘me problem.’” That’s such a gem for anyone navigating the college process to think about. Thank you so much Meghan.
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