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  • Writer's pictureCatherine Tidd

College Planning and Toxic Positivity

Planning for college is no small task; I've been through it twice and am about to go through it for the third and final time. This time around, I've vowed to do things differently.

Here's what I think is important for parents to understand: this is NOT a "magical" time for many of our kids. Most of the time, it's filled with stress and insecurity - even more so now with everything on social media (more about that in a minute). Even if your child manages to get through the actual application process and move into their new home without much me, it will hit them at some point.

Here are a few things to keep in mind.

The Build Up

The end of high school is STRESSFUL for students and I don't think parents treat it as they should. I swear I think I got two words out of my son during the last semester of his senior year because he was so stressed. I'm starting to see the same thing with my youngest daughter's boyfriend right now, who is still waiting to hear back from some colleges.

As adults, I think we maybe forget or never went through the type of stress some of these kids are experiencing. Frankly, they don't want us to ask any questions about their next steps because often they just don't know and if they DO know, they're still likely feeling overwhelmed about what's about to happen. Most of them put on a brave face and answer our annoying questions, but the brave ones will just tell us to stop asking.

What's hard about this is that, as parents, we're stressed too. We want to know what they're thinking and what decision they think they're going to make. I want to know the next steps, too, so I can picture what the future might look like. I have to consciously stop myself from asking too many questions. It's not easy.

And while we're excited and trying to jolly this situation along, it's important to know that this is the beginning of the biggest transition most of them have ever experienced, whether they realize it or not.

Making the Decision

You need to go into these college tours understanding that this is a sales process for the school. I know that sounds harsh, but it's true. They want you to pick them and they want your money, so they will make everything look bright and shiny.

The perfect example of this is the cafeteria. When you go out on an official visitors' weekend, it will AMAZE you. And then when your child walks in there for the first time on a regular school day, they'll wonder if they're in the same place. I know that my oldest used to go to the cafeteria specifically on visitors' weekends because she knew it would be much better.

The dorm room looks great. The classroom they show you is filled with light. Look at all the historical detail!

There is no way to prepare your child for what could be a big difference when they actually arrive and start going to classes every day. Just know that at some point the rose-colored glasses could come off and they might express some disappointment.

Everything is Awesome

Back in the day, I don't really remember having any preconceived ideas of what college was going to be like. I just showed up. But social media has changed that drastically.

I know my daughter has had friends at other schools who are REQUIRED through their sorority to post a certain number of pictures on social media each month showing them having a good time. This builds a lot of anticipation for incoming kids who quickly realize that not every day is a party. In fact, I remember saying to my daughter, "It looks like your friend is having a great time in college!"

"Oh, she's so miserable," she replied.

Her carefully curated Instagram said otherwise.

I don't see much on social media "student takeover" days with a student talking about how homesick they are or how they're having a difficult time adjusting; those types of posts won't get more kids applying to the school. This plants the toxic seed in our kids that they should be happy all the time in college. They will experience moments of loneliness and unhappiness which the school will warn you about - but never really acknowledge publicly. Everything that's been fed to them makes them feel like that's not normal - when it's more normal than what they're seeing on social media.

Both of my college kids have also had moments when they've been disappointed in the program they're in; they've been told going in that it's "the best" and have had high expectations only to realize it's not what they expected. They have both found joy in some of their classes, but, again, it's not an amazing experience 24/7.

Your Experience is NOT Their Experience

You might have had a raging good time in college (or remember it that way), but your kid might not. I've found that it doesn't help to only talk about what a great time you had, but to share some of the pitfalls you experienced as well.

I got married between my sophomore and junior year in college and finished college living on an Air Force base as an officer's wife. So, what my daughter is going through in her own apartment with a roommate and working part-time jobs is very different from what I experienced. She's worried about what's going to happen after she graduates. What kind of job will she get? Will she move back home? Will she continue to live out of state? I didn't experience this because my next step after graduation largely depended on where we would be stationed next. So, while our experiences are different...that's actually a good thing. I can offer her my support without chiming in with what I did at her age.

What College REALLY Is

While some of us might have felt like college was an extension of high school with better access to beer, my kids have not felt that way. Here's what it really is:

This is the beginning of the adult lesson that life is made up of transitions - and this is likely the biggest one they've made so far. This growth can be amazing and also sometimes painful. While our instinct is to "fix" things when they aren't going well, we often can't so we shouldn't try. We should offer our never-ending support and an ear to listen when they're upset but I find that when I try to "fix" they often get more frustrated. I just need to let them talk.

This is a painful transition as a parent because we CAN'T fix and we're trying to figure out how to interact with our kids as the adults they're becoming. I do think it's important to stay on top of things and gently suggest mental health support if it's needed. I also think the most helpful thing I can do as a parent is to say over and over again, "If you're unhappy, I'll support you in any way I can to make the changes you want to make."

This is hard because sometimes we have to learn to sit with their discomfort without trying to make things better. One of the worst things we can do is dismiss what they're experiencing with platitudes and promises - which is often a parenting reflex - and insist that things will get better soon. In the moment, it doesn't feel that way to them and I think toxic positivity like that makes them shut down.

This is when they learn how to make changes - another adult lesson. When my kids were looking at schools, I wanted to make sure that they had other options in programs if they decided to change majors (something I did a month into college) and still stay at the same school if they want to or to transfer if they don't. Make sure they know that they don't have to make a definitive decision about what they want to do for the rest of their lives at 18 years old! This is just the beginning. And they can make changes if they're unhappy. We have to remind them that nothing in life is permanent if they don't want it to be. They have the power to make changes. That's what life is all about.

It's Not All Bad

I have likely painted a bleak college picture here and that wasn't my intention. My kids have had some awesome times at school. However, there was a time when I was so heartbroken about how unhappy my daughter seemed and almost insisted that she come home. She finally told me that she was okay - it was just that I was the one she felt comfortable venting to, so I was only getting part of the picture.

The most important thing to remember (and I'm glad I know this for my third child) is that college isn't just about football games and parties and the most important lessons they learn are often not in the classroom. We need to see college for what it is: the first of many steps into becoming who they want to be - not the answer to lifelong happiness. Life is all about learning and that doesn't stop when they graduate. This is just a small piece of the puzzle.

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