It starts with the soccer team sticker, then it’s the honor roll sticker and finally families can hope to get a coveted college sticker to slap on their car, proudly showing off where their kids go to school.
It’s hard not to let peer pressure and your own feelings get in the way as your child makes a decision that feels so public and important to their future, said Kymberly Spector, a parent of a high school senior in southern California.
“It does feel like, when you’re in it, that this is the biggest decision and the biggest deciding factor of their future,” she said, adding that she strives to keep her daughter’s individual experience a priority over competition with other parents.
Getting into a top-tier school has become harder and more important to the metaphorical family report card, seemingly symbolizing how well we raised our children, said John Duffy, a psychologist based in Chicago.
But, for the students involved, there are consequences to the expectations, said Devorah Heitner, founder of Raising Digital Natives and author of “Screenwise: Helping Kids Thrive (and Survive) in Their Digital World.”
“For some (young) people it’s going to narrow their self-conception, and for some people it’s going to feel like life is some kind of pass-fail question as opposed to an ongoing essay that you’re always writing,” she said.
Pressure from parents over college choices has been on the rise over the last 20 years, and unfortunately perfectionism among kids has been rising with it, according to research published last week by the American Psychological Association.
That perfectionism can lead to feelings of anxiety and depression, said study author Thomas Curran, assistant professor in the department of psychological and behavioral science at The London School of Economics and Political Science.
The pressure to give your child the best education is real, but the best education does not always come from a popular institution, Heitner said. To help your family get through college decisions in a way that minimizes the stress and maximizes students’ ability to make good decisions for themselves, experts recommended adults give these gifts to their kids.
A return to your values
The college admissions process is full of noise – from counselors, schools and other parents’ posts on social media, said Duffy, author of “Parenting the New Teen in the Age of Anxiety.” For your kid’s sake (and your own), it is important to take a breath and consider what you really want for your child.
“Inevitably parents will say, I want them to be happy, I want them to be well-rounded, I want them to be good citizens,” Duffy said. Once they get past their initial impulse to keep up with their neighbors, “hardly ever do I hear them say I want them to go to the best college they can, and I want them to make the most money they could possibly make.”
How do we pass that mindset on to kids? Heitner said it is important to focus conversation not just on how to get into an elite college, but more on the life they want to have and the many ways they could get there.