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He didn’t make it into his top college choice. How do I help now?

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Q: My son just found out he didn’t get into his first choice of college. I’m not surprised, because he didn’t care enough about his grades to work hard. He was clearly disappointed when he got the news, but an hour later, it was “just annoying,” then he showed no further evidence of anything.

He doesn’t reveal his emotions easily to me. If anything, he seems delusional (“I’m sure I’ll get in”) and avoidant of emotion. Now he might not get into his safety school, and I mentioned that to him. He got angry and asked why I would bring that up, telling me I’m going to make him worry.

I think I’m beginning to see that he copes with the possibility of failure by denying it could happen. Then he doesn’t process it and simply moves on. I’m worried about this, and I’m wondering whether I should guide him in some way?

A: I am sorry your son didn’t get into his first choice of college. Whatever we may think about his efforts and caring, it is normal for teens to get excited about a goal (even when it is out of reach) and to feel crushed when the dream isn’t realized. Natural consequences are a part of life, and the sooner a child safely experiences them, the better their resilience. But there is an undertone of frustration and hurt in your tone, and we need to dig into that.

Ross Greene, a child psychologist and the author of “The Explosive Child,” says something I repeat to my clients and myself quite a bit: “Kids do well when they can.” I thought of this saying when I read this sentence: “I’m not surprised, because he didn’t care enough about his grades to work hard.” As a student who didn’t get good grades, as a teacher, as a school counselor, and as a parent and coach, I have not found that children just don’t care enough to work hard. I have found, almost unequivocally, that students have some kind of pain, insecurity, learning issue or self-esteem problem that is standing in the way of them doing well.

I am not saying this to make you feel badly; teens can be very good at throwing their parents off the scent of their pain. They can be snarky, silent, mean or aloof, and, in your case, they can be in denial and avoidant. Is he really delusional? I don’t know, but a true delusional disorder is rare and serious, because the person cannot tell the difference between what is real and what is not. If you think this is the case, please call a specialist to have your son assessed.

Otherwise, you are working with a teen who is in a lot of emotional pain.

I wish I could sit down with you and ask, “When did this avoidance begin?” because, at 17 or 18, it is hard to sort this all out. Has he been avoidant for years? When did his grades start slipping? What has happened in his life to cause this? Does he have a learning disorder? And most importantly, is he depressed? Many assume that depression means lying on the couch and sighing. Although it can look like that, it also looks like anger, especially in boys and men. I don’t know whether depression is a primary issue or the result of another issue, such as a learning disability, or both. But it is never too late to start helping your son.

First, stop assuming he didn’t work hard or didn’t care. That is probably not true, and it won’t lead to any good change. Second, say something like: “I think I make you worry or feel nervous when I ask you about things, and I don’t want to do that anymore. Let’s find a better way to communicate.” This may be the first time you speak to him with this level of vulnerability, so you may need more support.

Finally, start spending some positive time with your son. Take him away for the weekend, go out to eat or watch a movie. Do anything to bring the two of you together, so you can learn more about him. You don’t want him to just be realistic about his future, which can be a goal. You want to understand what makes him tick, why he is shutting down and whether he needs professional help.

Again, please reach out to his pediatrician or an expert who works with older teens for guidance. You don’t have to do this alone. Good luck.

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