“How to talk with your teen about college.”
With. Not “to.” Not “at.” And hopefully not “over.”
Many parents have shared with me their frustrations about speaking with their teens about planning for college:
- “I try to ask him about his college applications and he says to stop bugging him, he’s on it.”
- “She says to stop pressuring her – but we’ve barely even talked about it!”
- “He says I don’t understand.”
- “She says she doesn’t want to think about it right now and to stop rushing her.
How are you making the topic of college an open and ongoing dialogue?
This is not a one-time talk. It doesn’t have to be super serious and nothing needs to be decided or resolved the first, second, or even fifth time you discuss your child’s goals and plans.
It is best, however, when both parents are approaching the topic with their kids prepared to listen as much as to talk. And what you’re listening for are three key pieces of information: their goals, their fears, and how you can be helpful to them.
Here are 4 questions that can help you initiate a real discussion about your teens’ plans and gain insight into what you can (and cannot!) do to assist them.
1. What do you want next year to look like?
Is your daughter talking a lot about seeing friends, keeping her same job, and sticking close to home, or is she dazzled by the idea of traveling, finding an internship, and meeting new people? This is a great way to bring up the idea of visiting some college campuses in person (and let her choose), so that she has the opportunity to imagine how her dreams could play out at different universities.
Is college even mentioned? Is your teen someone who is thinking about a gap year? If so, you know to connect her with persons who can speak to the advantages and disadvantages of taking some time off before college, and can help her be strategic about how she spends that time.
2. What schools are your friends talking about?
Your teen may not be discussing college with you, but he is almost certainly hearing other people talking about it. This is a nice, neutral pathway into a conversation that yes, is about where his friends are thinking about applying to. But hopefully it also leads to discussion about whether or not he is interested in those schools too.
His reasons for why or why not will be illuminating. You might discover he is fairly dedicated to the idea of striking out on his own and applying somewhere where nobody knows him. Or that he harbors a desire to stay close to home. You will get a sense of how confident he is about his prospects about being accepted to college; if he seems defeated he probably avoids talking about college with you because he is afraid he won’t get in anywhere – and of disappointing you.
3. Is there anything about college that makes you nervous?
You know your teen better than I do, so feel free to replace “nervous” with “anxious,” “scared,” “sad,” or similar words that you think will best resonate with your student.
Are they bummed about leaving their best friend? Nervous about leaving home? Scared about the money it will cost?
It’s possible that the reason your teen doesn’t want to discuss college is because it feels like a looming threat in some way. Let them know you are there to help problem-solve. If you don’t know the answer or have control over the situation, enlist the help of someone who does.
4. How can I best support you?
Sometimes the way we want to help people is not the way they want or need help. So open it up to them. Maybe they want your advice and maybe they want you to *just* listen.
You can also connect them with school and college counselors, financial officers, current students at the colleges your teen is interested in attending, a doctor, a therapist, a coach, or a college consultant.
- I don’t know how to help you with that, but I will find someone who can.
- This is what I’m hearing you say… (repeat back and let your teen correct you if you misunderstood)
- You don’t have to [insert] just because… (I did, your grandfather did, your friends are, it’s the best school in the state)
- I’m proud of you.
You’re doing a great job, parents! Now go tell your teens that they are also doing a great job, and let them know you are ready to listen when they want to talk.