Self-doubt and insecurity are normal experiences but newly minted high school graduates seem to lack confidence in both themselves and their ability to succeed. I believe this stems from the destructiveness of ‘comparison-making’, encouraged by social media, and the over-involvement of parents who, due to the increased competitiveness of college admissions want to give their children an advantage in order to increase their chances of getting into the ‘best’ college.
Unfortunately, parents who love their children are also unintentionally hurting their children’s self –esteem. By doing too much for them, they undermine their self-reliance, and by being over protective they also deprive their children the opportunity to develop emotional resilience which comes from experiencing the natural consequences of one’s decisions and actions.
These new graduates therefore, deep down lack a feeling of competence and confidence in their ability to succeed on their own, and are less resilient to recover from setbacks. They are going off to college with a weakened self-esteem that makes them vulnerable to challenge and new demands, and prone to anxiety and depression.
The following are 10 conversations to have with your child to better prepare him or her to leave the nest.
- Talk to your child about change being both exciting and also stressful because with change we go from the familiar into the unfamiliar and that always requires an adjustment. It is also important for them not to jump to the false conclusion that their discomfort is evidence that they have made the wrong choice. It’s more likely that they need to exercise patience and give themselves time to become comfortable in their new environment.
- Since going off to college is entering a new stage of development, discuss with your child how stress is therefore normal and inevitable, and so it is helpful to manage it before it gets too high. It’s important to exercise self-care by eating in ways that stabilize blood sugar, getting sufficient sleep, and engaging in some form of exercise or stress relieving activity. Encourage your child to learn deep breathing or belly breathing, since this technique reduces anxiety by turning off the activating system of the body and turning on the calming, relaxation system instead.
- Since stress magnifies negative thoughts, a common pattern to be aware of is black and white thinking. In the college setting, this might mean that when a grade or one’s performance is disappointing or falls short of a hoped for expectation, it is seen as a complete failure. Remind your child that when they were little they weren’t able to tie their shoes either after their first attempt but rather it took time to master. Emphasize that there are degrees of success, and perseverance will always result in improvement.
- On a related note, remind your child how we are all limited in one way or another, and so making comparisons with others provides no meaningful information. People aren’t created equally, and we can all find ourselves in some way on the deficient end of the comparison. It is also important not to use grades as a measure of self-worth or an indication of future success. Some people are better test takers than others, and some have better recall, and this is true even among the highest of achievers, after all there can be only one number one at Harvard. But what is most important is work ethic, integrity, and a can-do attitude. These are the traits that are more predictive of success even though in college the grade is all-important.
- Disappointments are inevitable, and these experiences are not an indication of a never-ending cycle of defeat. Discouragement often results in negative patterns of thought often just below the level of conscious awareness. Encourage your child to therefore pay close attention to their disparaging silent chatter; words like ‘never’ and ‘always’ results in a feeling of hopelessness and despair, which is often the cause of anxiety and depression.
- Talk to your child about how there are only some things in their control, and their thoughts are one of those things. Since thoughts influence feelings, remind your child that they can change their negative feelings by changing their thoughts. What this means, is that if your child does poorly on a test, instead of thinking that they are a failure and will never succeed, they can say to themselves that even though, “ I did poorly, this is not an indication of a pattern and does not mean they am unable to succeed because there are things I can do to improve their performance.” They can speak to their professor, for example, about how best to study for the next test or to study with a buddy or they can go to the college resource center for extra help. Effort is always fruitful and never futile.
- Learning to problem solve is a necessary coping skill, and so help your child to master it by teaching them the following sequence of steps: First the problem must be put into words and defined so it isn’t vague. Then all the possible solutions that pop into their head must be considered without censoring them. For each solution, a list of pros and cons must be generated so they can be studied. Once the best option has been chosen, even if it is not theidealone, your child should come up with a detailed plan to execute it. And since things don’t always go the way we would want, it’s important to be prepared for this possibility by devising a Plan “B”.
- Encourage your child to go to the college-counseling center if they are having difficulty adjusting. Your child may think that asking for help makes him or her weak or means that there is something wrong with them. Express to your child that this is not true, and emphasize that having the ability to ask for help is a sign of strength and a healthy coping strategy.
- Learning to be assertive is necessary, especially when living with roommates, and not having you around to advocate for them. Your child must learn the skill of expressing their feelings in a direct and respectful way. When someone oversteps a boundary or disregards their feelings, teach your child that it is best to address the issue sooner rather than later, before resentment has set in. To alleviate tension, suggest they use “I” statements when expressing their feelings, instead of “you” statements, which can sound hostile. Emphasize that being assertive is not inappropriate or aggressive, but rather a sign of self-respect. A simple search on Amazon will produce many books on the topic.
- Lastly, discuss with your child that doing something new is scary for everyone, and even though others may look unaffected on the outside, they are likely feeling what your child is feeling on the inside. So caution your child not to jump to the conclusion that there is something wrong with them because other people appear settled and happy when they are not.
A program designed to address not only these issues but low self esteem in general, and emotionally prepare kids for college can be found at www.preparetoleavethenest.com. Input the code FREE in the coupon box at check out.
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By Debby Fogelman, who has a MA in Experimental Psychology and a Psy.D in Clinical Psychology. She currently works in private practice in Beverly Hills in which she specializes in helping those with relational difficulties, anxiety, and low self-esteem.
In her unique, ground-breaking, and free podcast series, Preparing to Leave the Nest, Dr. Fogelman offers the emotional preparation and tools that are not only necessary to help college-bound young adults cope with the new demands and challenges of this stage of development but also to identify and recover from low self worth in general, so as not to join the growing ranks of those suffering from debilitating anxiety and depression.