College Game Plan

I Don’t Want to Talk About It! How to Discuss College With Your Kid

Talking to high school juniors and seniors about college admissions can be frustrating. Parents probe, teens need privacy and aren’t really into discussing a highly stressful part of their lives.

“My sons would clam up or shut down the minute the topic of college applications was broached. The more questions I asked, the less they wanted to talk. They wanted to do this themselves,” recalls Hatsy Vallar, a mother from Bedford Corners, New York, who has two sons in college and one applying now.

Mark Edwards, aged 17, and his mother Jill Edwards tour the
Mark Edwards and his mother Jill Edwards tour the campus of Johns Hopkins University during a welcoming for admitted students in Baltimore, Maryland, on April 7. Dennis Drenner / Bloomberg via Getty Images file

For Vallar, the college visit became a catalyst for chat. “It helped open them up. I learned so much hearing from them what they liked or didn’t like and was able to establish a dialogue for the rest of the process.”

Special Report: Get more tips and advice about college at the Freshman Year Experience

Still, there are topics that need discussing well before the college visits. How, then, to help teens deal with the barrage of pressure while still keeping the family dialogue open? Try these tips.

Let the kid set the rules.

Ask your 11th grader how he or she wants to talk about it, said Alice Kleeman, a recently retired college advisor at Menlo-Atherton High School in California. Kleeman’s script: “We are now going to go into two years of fairly intense conversation about college. How would you like this to be in our home?” Let high schoolers decide how they would like handle college admissions talk by, for example, discussing things once a week at the dinner table, sending emails to each other or posting reminders and other information on the refrigerator.

Related: A College Degree Is Still Worthwhile, But Do Your Homework First

Give them an out.

Parents or counselors can give teens the polite language to use to deflect adults’ well meaning but invasive questions. Remind kids to keep as much of it private (scores, grades, schools) as the teen would prefer, said Kleeman. Kids should make their parents the “bad guy” and say, “My parents asked me not to talk about this until the process is over.”

Make hang time a priority.

The increased demands on teens’ lives can crowd out family time. These shared positive activities — watching a movie together or going on a hike — are more important than ever. They’re a welcome break from the one topic that seems to take up all of the oxygen. As the high school years wind down, family time becomes even more precious and should not be sacrificed on the altar of college admissions.

Related: Freshman Homesickness: What You Can Do to Combat This Common Malady

Find a stress-free zone.

Parents can help their teens find a place that helps relieve the pressure from time to time. For some kids, it is a retreat into music or art, for others, sports, television or video games. Make sure that this refuge is not overlooked.

Related: Survey Reveals Students' Number One College Worry

Remember, it's not the end of the world.

Offer kids context and support during these stressful years. Remind them that college is an important decision, but that it’s only one of many that will determine their career paths. Use dozens of examples to show that the road to success does not run through a particular college. And offer unwavering support and love during a process that can batter the confidence of even the most self-assured teen. Telling them you’re proud of their hard work, regardless of the outcome, reminds them of what is most important.

Lisa Heffernan is a cofounder of Grown and Flown, a site for parents of 15-25 year-olds.