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November 2

Tips For Helping Anxious Teens Who Are Applying For College

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The college application process can stir feelings of stress in your teenager which makes it a trying time for any parent. As you stand by, watching your child navigate this nerve-racking journey, remember you're not alone and what's happening is perfectly normal - most teens report feeling stressed about getting into college. Some parents come to me worried that their child isn't ready for college because the application process has been so stressful, but the intense stress is usually normal. 

Read on for tips to help parents like you learn reliable coping strategies that will create less tension and more confidence in your teen as they approach their college applications.

Key Takeaways

  • College application time can make teens worry. Parents should listen and talk to understand their child's fears.
  • Break the big task of college applications down into small steps. Use clear plans, goals, and timelines.
  • Teens need rest and self-care. Powering through isn't always the right answer.
  • A plan helps reduce stress for the whole family. It should include college research, clear goals, plus flexibility in case things change.
  • If anxiety gets to be too much for your teen, reach out to teachers or mental health experts for help.

Understanding College Application Anxiety

Feeling anxious about applying for college is a normal response many teens experience. The causes of this anxiety can vary, from fear of rejection to the pressure of making such a significant decision.

It's crucial to acknowledge these feelings and understand they are common, not something out of the ordinary or a sign your teen cannot handle what lies ahead.

Normal response

Feeling stress is part of the college application process. It's okay for your teen to feel this way.  You can even see it as a sign they care about their future.

This anxiety is a normal response to such an important decision in their life! But, don't let it take over everything. Just because a response is normal, doesn't mean there isn't something that can be done to lessen the intensity of it. 

Causes of anxiety

Many things can make teens feel anxious about college. One big issue is the pressure to finish a multitude of tasks on time. College applications have many deadlines and different requirements, making it incredibly stressful. Add that to the regular tasks of senior year and it's easy for anyone to be completely overwhelmed. 

Lack of sleep also stirs up anxiety in teens, which can then affect their parents too. Many of my clients during this time think that powering through, staying up late, and drinking lots of coffee is the answer to getting everything done. Usually, this just makes it a lot harder to get anything done. Until sleep is prioritized, stress will likely increase. 

Applying to college is a big decision and your teen might start thinking far into the future. They might start stressing about being away from home for the first time or even what they want to major in. It's very easy to get caught in a spiral of wanting to have your entire future figured out when really, there is just a lot of waiting involved and unanswered questions. 

Coping Strategies for Parents

As a parent, listening intently and validating your teen’s feelings about the college application process is crucial. Establish manageable goals together to make the process less overwhelming.

Keep an open dialogue with your child to understand their concerns and fears. Encourage breaks and self-care routines to help alleviate stress. If things become too difficult, don't hesitate to seek professional guidance or therapy for additional support.

Step back and listen

As a parent, it's crucial to step back and listen. Your teen needs you to hear them out. This should happen without any judgment or quick fixes from your end. It is hard watching your child feel anxious but supportive listening can offer comfort during stressful times. By doing this, you show empathy toward your kid's feelings about applying for college. If you find yourself wanting to offer advice or fixes, try simply repeating back to your child what they are saying. Oftentimes that is enough for someone to feel validated, heard, and supported.

Create manageable goals

Applying to college is a HUGE goal and having a clear path on how to conquer applications will make everyone feel more in control.

  1. Break down the big task: Applying to college is a big job. Break it into smaller parts. This could mean choosing a school one week and filling out forms the next week.
  2. Make weekly plans: Each week, collaborate with your teen to set goals. Talk about these goals in advance.
  3. Keep goals clear: Each goal should be clear and easy to understand. For example, 'research three colleges by Friday.'
  4. Use structure: Having set times and/or locations for working on college applications can help alleviate stress.
  5. Be flexible: Life happens, and sometimes plans need to change. If a goal isn't met, it's okay! Adjust the plan as needed.
  6. Celebrate small wins: When a goal is met, make sure your teen knows they did well!
  7. Don't forget self-care: Include time for breaks and fun activities in your teen's schedule.

Encourage talking about feelings

Talking about feelings is incredibly helpful but it's hard for teens (and many of us!) to share their fears. As parents, it's our job to make this easy for them. We need to show that sharing feelings is okay and not a sign of weakness.

One way is by showing how we deal with stress. Let your teen see you talk about your worries, then manage them in a healthy way. This will inspire your teen to do the same thing.

Also, let them know that feeling worried is normal when applying for college. It's something all students face at some time or another. It never ceases to amaze me how many of my teen clients think they are the ONLY ones feeling stressed about applications, so reminding your teen that everyone feels this way will go a long way.

There won't always be quick fixes or solutions for their problems. That doesn't mean we stop listening or talking though! Sometimes just being there and caring helps.

Reframe thoughts and focus on accomplishments

I often help my teen clients change how they think. Negative thoughts can make them feel anxious. The college application process leaves many teens and parents feeling out of control because there isn't much to do once those applications are turned in.

This is where cognitive reframing can be helpful. For example, if your teen says "I will never get into any college," you can turn it into "We are working hard and doing our best." This helps them see their wins instead of losses.

Your teen might not get into their dream school, and that can be so heartbreaking. If that happens, remind them that they did what they could and with so many applicants, sometimes there is luck involved in getting in and that isn't their fault. Then, when they are ready, have them list all of the things they are excited about for other college choices.

Other Resources and Tips

When helping your anxious teen through college applications, it's crucial to recognize warning signs of heightened anxiety and seek outside help if necessary.

Recognize warning signs of anxiety

Here are some of the warning signs of anxiety. Multiple of these changes could mean your teen needs extra support:

  1. Your teen might pull back from things they used to enjoy.
  2. They avoid being with their friends.
  3. They seem cranky or get upset a lot.
  4. They don't eat like they used to.
  5. Their sleep patterns shift a lot or they seem tired all the time.
  6. They seem on edge and worry about everything.
  7. You may spot a shy side of them that wasn't there before.
  8. Your teen might have headaches more than usual.
  9. You might see them sitting still, but they can't relax.

Seek outside help if needed

You are not alone in this journey. If your teen's worry seems too much, it is okay to seek outside help. A lot of people out there can guide you - like teachers, school counselors, or mental health experts.

Include your teen in the process of finding support. Your teen needs to feel safe to share his or her worries with others. Asking for help shows strength, not weakness. It also helps you and your child learn new ways to manage stress during the college application process.

Final thoughts

I can still remember my own anxiety around the college application process and it's been almost 20 years. You might be feeling frustrated if your teen is having a hard time getting applications done, but just remember that sometimes stress manifests as not being able to take action. By being a supportive listener, helping your teen set goals, and getting additional support if needed, you will be on your way to making this application season less stressful. 

Anne Rice, LPC, LMHC, CPCS

About the author

Anne is a licensed therapist in both New York and Georgia. She is the owner of Firefly Wellness Counseling located in the Atlanta area. Her team works with all members of the family struggling with anxiety, depression, and big life changes. Anne loves helping adults and teens navigate life's difficulties by creating a comfortable and safe place to share anything and everything that is on their minds. She completed her undergraduate degree in Psychology at Princeton University and her graduate degree in Counseling Psychology from Boston College.


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