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On Parenting
Posted at 07:00 AM ET, 12/19/2011

Is a ‘good-enough’ college the best college?


(Tom Perkins(Perkmeup Imagery))
Besides the holidays, there’s another season breaking right now: the college application frenzy. Teenagers across the country will spend their winter breaks cramming on personal essays and begin the long stretch of anxiety until they find out where they got in for school.

In this weekend’s Post, Lynn F. Field, a Fairfax psychotherapist who works with teens, argues what happens now between a teen and parent may be even more important. Her argument is almost heresy — that parents should lower the college application stress level by, in some cases, lowering expectations.

“It’s clear that students in this area see applying to college as a high-stakes, make-or-break moment. … As a mental health provider who works with teenagers, I find it heartbreaking to see the effect of this myth on the psyches of high schoolers. Any doubt about the power of negative thinking is banished by sitting across from a teen whose stomach is in a knot because his or her self-worth is tied to a GPA or wrapped up in the name of a college,” Field wrote.

I followed up with Field, who is also program manager for outpatient family services at Inova Keller Center, to ask her to elaborate on her plea that some parents relax their collegiate standards.

Our Q&A is below:

Can you expand on the notion that teens get overwhelmed by the pressure?

These teens get anxious and often only view their experience as an all or nothing. That is, if they don’t get into the college with a name then they feel embarrassed. The focus of their day-to-day becomes doing things “perfectly” which we know is just not possible. They often feel out of control when they attempt to control many of the externals.

How does that manifest itself?

Everything from a depressive episode, to panic attacks to eating disorders.

Is there a danger that these kids get to college and then fall apart emotionally?

I have seen this over and over again. The most extreme case was of a teenager who really wanted to get into one to the “named” southern schools. She was not accepted and was devastated. She “happened” to have a relative who was either on the board of the school or knew someone on the board. Ultimately, she did get in. She felt overwhelmed from the get-go, had a severe depressive episode and withdrew. It took a long while for her to rebuild her confidence enough to take a class at NOVA [Northern Virginia Community College].

What do you say to a parent who counters: Pushing a child academically is GOOD parenting?

I say GOOD parenting is accepting their child unconditionally regardless of where they are academically. I say GOOD parenting is being supportive and listening to their child’s fears. I say GOOD parenting is normalizing the extreme view these kids have of what it means to be successful by focusing on their child’s strengths -- who they are as people.

Isn’t your advice a bit counter-culture? Our culture, certainly in the Washington region, is to academically “reach for the top.”

It is most unfortunately counter-culture. Maybe redefining “top” needs to occur. Why is it either-or? Maybe there are many “tops” and “bests” and achievement is about having balance.

What do you think? Is the competitive mentality around college admissions out of control?

By  |  07:00 AM ET, 12/19/2011

Tags:  college applications, teens and stress

 
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