Back in the dark ages of the 1970s, preparing for college was a lot simpler. I paid attention to which courses I would take, but for a soon-to-be liberal arts major, I didn’t have too much planning to do. Most of us took our SATs once, perhaps an advanced placement test, and applied to five or six schools. Then we went on with our lives while waiting for the letters to come, in the mail. Yes, in an envelope, straight to the mailbox.
Today, course selection begins in middle school, so your student can get into the right courses in high school. Some middle schools host college representatives. Seniors check online, endlessly, to find out the very moment the results are in. Students apply to a dozen colleges, changing the odds of who is accepted. There are services and consultants to help them prepare, beginning in 9th grade. Others specialize in writing the essay or prepping for an interview. And, of course, there are SAT prep courses galore.
With the push on at younger and younger ages, we’re paying the price, parents and kids alike. How do you cope with the madness? Let’s begin with a look at what stress is, some warning signs of stress overload, and the role you play along the way.
1. What are the most common areas of stress among teens?
* For starters, the ‘college process’ goes on for years, with agony over course selection, grades, SATS, applications, volunteer and extracurricular activities. This process has become a j.o.b.
* Social relationships are always changing. Today’s BFF is tomorrow’s enemy. There is pressure to conform, the agony of being excluded, and the temptations of drugs, alcohol and sex.
* For girls, more than for boys, body image is a big factor. They are too fat or too thin, too tall or too short. Their skin is a mess (they think), their hair is never right, and someone always has nicer clothes.
2. What is stress? Is there good stress, too?
* Stress is the body’s reaction to a real or perceived uncomfortable or dangerous situation. The body reacts by releasing hormones (adrenalin is one) that activate the fight or flight response. All systems are on alert.
* Yes, there is good stress. It’s normal, and has us performing at higher levels. Examples are public speaking, preparing to go to a party, and taking the foul shot that could win or lose a game. When the event is over, the hormones return to normal.
* Then there is stress overload. This is ongoing, low- or hi-level stress such as changing schools, divorce, a death in the family or bullying. It can feel like a constant state of anxiety.
3. How do teens respond to normal stress and stress overload?
* You already know that it shows up in their moods (both boys and girls). Your teen can be impatient, irritable, sad, depressed, anxious and overwhelmed. They will often take it out on family and friends.
* Physical symptoms include stomach/headaches, allergic reactions such as hives, changes in eating, sleeping and hygiene.
* Then there are real danger signs: self-abuse (eating disorders, cutting) and abusing drugs and alcohol. They become secretive. This is what happens when they don’t know any other way to cope.
4. Why does stress increase during the college prep process?
* With all the pressure, teens feel that today’s choices are forever choices. “What if I choose wrong? What if I make a mistake?”
* There is the stress of maintaining grades and getting into the ‘best’ college.
* This is a long, drawn-out process, with lots of waiting. Life revolves around college for more years than it should.
5. How do parents add to the stress during college prep?
* With love and concern and the best intentions, parents add to the pressure. You may be micromanaging around grades, homework and extracurriculars.
* Parents nag about studying, prepping for the SAT/ACT, completing applications, and may compare their kids to others.
* You may be complaining (loudly worrying) about the pressures of financing the college education. (Here’s where you can set some parameters about the schools to which your child applies.)
Start paying attention to behavior changes that may indicate stress overload. Take a look at your own behaviors and responses when the subject of college comes up. There are always opportunities to take the angst out of the apps.