Where did this stress about college applications come from? Why wouldn’t my daughter finish her college applications?
The college application deadlines were looming, and she always seemed to have too much homework or too many tests, or she was too tired from practice.
It kept me up at night. I had to bite my tongue to prevent myself from bringing it up several times a day. And when I couldn’t help myself, the conversation quickly degenerated into an argument.
I knew she was eager to graduate and head to college, so why the procrastination? If this was what she wanted, why couldn’t she sit down and just do them? If I only knew then what I’ve learned since, I could have saved us both a lot of stress and heartache!
What’s Ailing our Teens?
In a nutshell, this procrastination was likely the result of anxiety. Anxiety about not getting into college. Anxiety about not getting into the ‘right’ college. Anxiety about not being able to craft a ‘winning essay.’ Anxiety about not measuring up to my expectations.
I attended an event with Dr. Jonathan Dalton, who specializes in working with anxious youth, and his presentation opened my eyes to the magnitude of this problem. According to Dr. Dalton’s research, 38% of girls will have at least one anxiety disorder between the ages of 13 and 18. For boys, it is somewhat less at around 26%. For students with a learning difference or ADHD, the statistics are even more grim. At this very moment, approximately 8% of all teens are suffering from an anxiety disorder, with most of them not receiving any help or treatment.
I was floored. This placed my daughter’s behavior in a new light. She was coping with her fear by simply avoiding dealing with her applications. Not a rational response from my perspective, but a predictable one.
How Did They Become So Anxious?
It wasn’t always this way. Teens are now 5 to 8 times more likely to show symptoms of anxiety disorders compared to teens in the 1900s. According to psychologists, comfort and growth are not compatible, and kids in recent decades are increasingly not taught how to fail, which it turns out is a useful, even necessary, skill to have. Our youth have not spent as much time learning how to overcome challenges on their own, as triggers and obstacles are removed or minimized by the adults around them, in homes, schools and extracurricular activities.
So as my daughter’s parent, it turns out I need to take some responsibility for this sad state of affairs. I know (I can even remember some of the instances) I often stepped in to help my daughter when I saw her struggling. I have no doubt that in many cases, she would have been just fine, and possibly even better off, if had I let her figure it out for herself. Then, when it was time to complete those college applications, she probably would have been much more self-confident and less fearful of failure.
And while we can tell our applicants they have nothing to fear, once anxiety becomes pervasive in a young person’s life, it does not matter whether the danger is real or perceived. The body reacts in the same way. Can you imagine trying to write a unique and insightful essay while sitting in a lion’s den? Much easier to avoid entering the den….
How Can We Foster Courage?
I have been thinking about how to apply the wisdom shared by those who are treating teens with anxiety orders to the anxious college applicants in our lives. A fundamental first step is to consistently model what we want our teens to feel: calm. When we feel anxiety and stress about college applications, it can have exponential impacts on those around us.
Let our teens know that just because they are scared it doesn’t mean anything bad is going to happen. Colleges actually have more spaces than there are applicants. So every student who wants to go to college can! Apply to a balanced list of schools, and every applicant should expect success. Getting a bachelor’s degree is hopefully but one step in a long and successful life, and if you have read Frank Bruni’s book, you would know that ‘where you go is not who you’ll be!’
Help them see that they are stronger than their fear. Our youth have to believe in themselves. They have to experience failure and know that everything is going to be OK. They also have to have experiences seeing themselves succeed separate from their parents. So while it would be easy to help them too much, which is what got us into this situation to begin with, it would diminish their own growth.
We can support them best by helping them learn how to complete strong applications of which they can be proud. We have all seen the long list of self-help titles, and these are often very useful. Just as importantly, we can strip away the mystery that shrouds the admissions process, so applicants can feel more assurance that they know what they are doing and why. When it’s time to tackle the essays, we can help them see that they can write, by helping them build up their own ideas one step at a time.
If I could do it all over again, I would support my anxious daughter differently. As we all become more aware of anxiety disorders, we can help our teens live healthier lives, whether in the college admissions process or beyond.
Thanks to Jonathan Dalton, Ph.D., Center for Anxiety and Behavioral Change for his insightful presentation regarding stress about college applications. He can be reached at email@example.com.