Packing for College?
What your graduates actually needs most.
By Bec Buist
With a flip of a tassle and a toss of a hat, it’s that time of year again. Time for the newest cohort of graduates to head off to start college life. This year it includes my own daughter. Some graduates will stay close to the nest, others will fly slightly further afield.
My daughter will be a mere 14 hour plane ride away in Melbourne, Australia. It can be a time of undulating and sometimes blindsiding emotions.
Pride for the person they’ve become, excitement for their future and at times, gut wrenching sadness that the family unit is changing. Amongst the washing machine-esq swirl of emotions it can also be a time of reflection. “Have I equipped them with the skills they need to venture out into the world alone?”
Sure, they can cook a couple of basic meals, do a load of laundry, and call a cab (or “app” a cab). But if we have taught them these, lets call them, hard skills, are they adequately prepared with those “other skills”, the soft, less tangible ones?
Things like resilience, emotional regulation and problem solving. Your college packing list might include essentials such as bedding, laundry soap and IT equipment but what about self-motivation, time management and grit.
Working at an Australian University for just shy of a decade I met my fair share of students who tried to hand me their phone so mom could explain why junior had missed his exam (apparently, mum had forgotten to call and wake him up).
These are the same students who crumbled on receiving one bad grade, couldn’t tolerate challenging peer relationships and considered dropping out because a professor didn’t like them.
We called these students the “teacups” (as opposed to the “crispies” that were just plain burnt out from highschool). These students mostly came from loving homes and had resumes that ran circles around my meager midlife collection of accomplishments.
The teacups were usually incredibly impressive in multi-domains from athletics and the arts to academics, service and languages.
However, with only one common problem… they were fragile. They had largely been cultivated in stable homes by loving parents who only wanted nothing but the very best for them.
They had had mostly idyllic childhoods sheltered from major stress, discomfort or adversity and their care-givers had made it their personal mission to ensure they were “happy” almost all the time. Sounds perfect right?
We’d all like to provide our kids with as close to a Disney-esqe childhood and adolescence as possible, me included. Sadly, the reality is, it just doesn’t do them any favours our there in the real world.
To give our kids a loving childhood and set them up as capable, competent adults, we need to let them experience adversity, uncertainty, disappointment, sadness and worry. To feel these emotions is normal.
To learn to ride them out or self-soothe is healthy. We even need to de-stigmatise one of the most taboo four-letter words in our society today. That word; “FAIL”! To fail is human and for our kids to learn to get back up, brush themselves off and keep going after a fall or failure is vital to successful “adulting”.
To fear failure can stop us experimenting, trying and learning. This can ultimately limit our achievements rather than cultivating them.
But letting our kids experience problems and muddle through them themselves is not easy.
Not for our kids, but perhaps least of all for us parents. To smooth out life’s inevitable undulations, and pave the way for our kids feels instinctual and loving and those parents who are cruelly labelled as “Helicopter” or “Leaf-blower” parents are only doing what they think is right.
However, to raise resilient adults we need to ease up on the natural tendency to always fix and soothe and let them take over, preferable before the first day of college!! This is not an easy process so here are some ideas…
Wait it out
Teen problems flare and fade quickly. Parents can inadvertently make mountains out of mole hills when they hone in on every little teen issue. Resist the urge to just jump in and fix things.
If you are not used to this, it may require some serious tongue-biting on your behalf. This might make you feel anxious but it is better for you to learn healthy coping strategies rather than micro-managing their problems to ease your discomfort.
Don’t provide all the answers.
Rather than providing kids teens with all the answers, let them figure is out. Use phrases such as “I don’t know”, “what do you think”, and “how do you think you could handle it?” Let them test their solutions then tweak and retry them as necessary.
In an age of instant gratification it is vital teens realize they don’t always get or achieve what they want, whether it be a place on the basketball team, a good grade or a part-time job. Encourage them to acknowledge their disappointment, review their plan, and try again.
Demonstrate confidence in your teens problem solving skills
Positive feedback, as opposed to rules, criticism and doubt, work well with teens. Comments such as, “I really like how you handled that problem” or “nice job on managing a challenging situation” can reinforce adaptive behavior and boost confidence.
We can’t live a full and meaningful life and not experience failure sometimes. As hard as it can be, don’t shield your teen from failure. Rather destigmatize it and present it as a terrific opportunity to learn and grow.
We always learn so much more from our failures than our successes anyway. It can be helpful to look as a “FAIL” as a “First Attempt In Learning” (acronym also works for the fifth attempt if you happen to have a slow learner).
Thomas Edison, on trying to invent the lightbulb, famously said, “ I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work”. For the sports loving teen, the following quote from Michael Jordan can be powerful and uplifting…
“I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”
Teach them healthy techniques to manage emotions
Make it normal to acknowledge and talk about emotions. Teen boys frequently don’t open up about their emotions.
Spending time together doing an activity e.g. shooting baskets, watching a game, working in the garage etc might give them the opportunity to share what’s on their mind. Modeling appropriate behaviour is effective with teens who generally don’t like being told what to do.
This is important to remember if you drink, smoke, eat or shop your stress away instead of talking it out, going for a run or taking a long bath. It is important that, when you feel like giving up, you remember who is watching.
Share your mistakes and emotions with your kids. This is a great way for them to learn effective coping strategies.
Watch your language
Catastrophizing can be a common, unhelpful habit for many of us. Catastrophizing is the tendency to focus on the negative and assume the worst will happen.
Whilst it is good to plan for possible issues, constantly scanning for disaster is a major contributor to anxiety.
An example of catastrophizing would be worrying if your teen does badly on one test he won’t get into college or if she gets caught a storm she will have an accident and get hurt.
Remember teens closely watch us to learn how to behavior as an adult. If we are blowing things out of proportion or expecting doom and gloom our teens could likely copy this habit.
This can hinder their confidence and fuel anxiety and depression down the road. As catastrophic thinking and language can be an unhelpful habit, check yourself by asking, “what is the actual evidence here?”
For example, if you fear your tween will be abducted if he walks to a neighbors house in the early evening consider the actual likelihood versus the opportunity for your child to experience self-responsibility, confidence and adventure.
Your fear might be understandable given the all doom and gloom 24 hr news cycle but is it realistic or helpful?
Encourage them to communicate
Talking to adults can be stressful for kids. Unfortunately this, coupled with the age of email, texting and “Snappa-gramming”, means that many teens are heading to college, and into the workforce, without the ability to communicate effectively or ask for help.
Resist the urge to email your teen’s teacher, coach or boss to resolve an issue, clarify information or seek assistance, let them do it! If they are nervous, try role-playing the discussion with them first and remember they can always ask again if they don’t get what they need the first time.
Give them the freedom to make decisions and experience consequences.
Whilst we all want to save our teens hurt, disappointment and sadness if we don’t give teens freedom to make their own decisions and yes, “mistakes”, they will not grow in independence.
Whilst most parents like to be needed this could mean junior is still deferring to mom and dad for basic problems well into grad school.
Granted, we want to avoid mistakes that represent a serious safety risk, but letting your teen be benched for not going to practice or receiving an F for not submitting an assignment helps them learn that our behaviours have consequences.
Avoid the temptation to fix up their mistakes and poor judgement. Instead encourage them to take ownership. Not to punish them but to help them grow.
Gradually letting go and handing over the controls to your teen not only builds resilience, confidence and self-reliance, it is also a profound expression of love. When the overwhelming urge comes to gather them up and stick them back safely under your wing remember:
- If you want your teen to learn to pick themselves up, they will need to fall down
- If you want your teen to be a good problem-solver they need to have problems on which to practice
- If you want your teen to learn to ask for help they will need to experience vulnerability and uncertainty
- If you want your teen to be able to regulate their own emotions they are going to need to experience anger, sadness and disappointment.
- And if you want your teen to understand and appreciate true joy and happiness they will have to have contrasted it with sadness.
If you would like to discuss ideas for raising resilient kids, or coming to terms with your graduates taking flight, one of the highly experienced counselors/coaches at Naya Clinics can help.
This can be a hard time for parents, most of whom are wondering, “where on earth did the time go”? I definitely hear you! Though as my daughter gets ready to stretch her own beautiful wings I am just secretly happy I have a few more weeks of summer to discreetly pack in a few more emotional resiliency skills for her journey.