Laura’s daughter, a senior in a magnet program at a suburban public high school, is struggling far more with the college application process than her two older siblings did. This concerns Laura, who is worried what the effects of this type of stress might be on her daughter and other students like her.
Laura wonders “if perhaps she feels pressure based on their experiences” (the older sibs both attend very selective universities.) This fall Laura’s daughter “is definitely complaining of more physical complaints, including headaches, stomach aches and feeling tired.” Some days Laura allows her daughter “to go in late to school…because I don’t want to stress her further and I want her to get more sleep.”
If you are a parent of a high school senior in the middle of college admissions application season, the signs of stress Laura sees in her daughter may sound familiar to you – or perhaps not.
Effect of Stress on Students
Not all high school seniors experience stress during this period, but many do. Parents may see mild to severe signs of physical stress such as the ones Laura is noticing and/or signs of emotional, cognitive or behavioral stress.
Signs of emotional stress are common in high school seniors. Diane’s son attends a public high school in the city; she said her son “became a little withdrawn in the thick of the season of college applications, visits, plus heavy loads of school work.” She noticed that he was also “more irritable than usual.”
Rebecca’s daughter goes to a suburban public high school and applied early decision last fall to the same top university attended by her older brothers. The night the ED application was due, her daughter “shut down” and said she couldn’t finish her application because she was “absolutely exhausted.”
Two years earlier Rebecca’s son also waited until nearly the last minute to get his early application in, telling his mom he “had to go play basketball…and was gone for hours. “Pretty sure he was running away from the stress”, says Rebecca.
Nina’s son’s stress showed up in cognitive ways. In the fall of his senior year at his small, competitive private school, he exhibited higher than usual levels of anxiety, had serious insomnia and a lack of focus. Nina believes “it wasn’t a coincidence that he experienced his first panic attack” in the last two weeks of October, just before the November 1 early decision deadline of his first-choice college.
Nicole’s son, a senior in a large suburban high school, stayed out later than usual, likely “drinking more with his friends,” Nicole thinks in the fall of the college application season. He was “so stressed that he did not want us involved because that increased the stress.”
Lucky for Natalie, her four kids, all of whom went to a suburban high school, showed little signs of stress, other than some fleeting irritation and procrastination. Her youngest son, now a college sophomore, was “probably the most motivated of the bunch” because he “had witnessed his older siblings go off to college and survive.”
How Parents Respond to Their H.S. Seniors Signs of Stress
Nina promptly set up a therapist appointment for her son. The family together with their son’s high school college counselor agreed that he should put off applying in the early decision round to lessen the stress (in retrospect, Nina thinks, perhaps not the wisest stress-reduction strategy.)
Laura has offered her daughter a chance to see a therapist, but her daughter said no. Laura has tried to reassure her daughter – “truthful but I know it feels empty to her – that almost all students of her caliber end up at a school where they flourish.”
Diane says her son’s stress levels have declined now that “he has made some choices and a good chunk of his applications” are done. When application season began, Diane helped her son who she says needs “structure and advice on how to get started” by setting up weekly calendars with to-do items broken into manageable “blocks of time.”
Diane also encouraged her son to “take breaks, call his brothers or go for a run.” Looking back to earlier this fall, Diane admits that she and her husband put off “a lot of their college visits, and it was not fun or productive squeezing in too many visits in a month.”
Nicole, seeing her son procrastinate, stay out late and grow quieter around his parents, tried to get more involved in her son’s application process, but that “angered him and ultimately he just kept saying “I got this” – when he didn’t.
Her son was not accepted last year to his first-choice school, but now is a very happy freshman at a large university out of state. Nicole still wonders, in retrospect, if she should have hired an outside consultant to guide her son through the process.
When To Take Steps to Help With The Stress
Some parents react to signs of stress in their high school seniors by jumping in to get more involved – or trying to. Others see the stress and know that backing off is what is needed.
If the stress level is manageable, the impact on the family minimal and, most important, the student generally healthy, physically and emotionally, parents can choose the approach that works for their family.
But parents who see their son or daughter’s stress manifest itself in serious and/or life-threatening ways cannot hesitate to get expert right away. If you hear talk about or threats of suicide, see evidence of self-harm, notice significant changes in appetite, weight loss or weight gain, signs of misuse of prescription meds, illegal drugs or alcohol abuse – these are all signs of stress that cannot be ignored, in the hope that they will go away once the admission season ends. Expert help is needed and as soon as possible.
*Quotes in the article were taken from real parents who asked not to have their real names used. Instead, we changed their names for the article, using the real first initial of their names, to protect their privacy.
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By Nancy L. Wolf has successfully helped high school students craft compelling college admission essays for ten years. She was a partner at a DC law firm specializing in communications law. Since leaving the law firm, she’s taken masters level classes in writing at the Johns Hopkins University in DC and become a published author of articles, essays and fiction.
She’s mentored first-generation-to-college high school students through the Posse Foundation, College Tracks and College Bound in the DC area. She now tutors international graduate students in writing and teaches English as a second language at the Washington English Center.
Nancy has a passion for developing positive, trusting and candid relationships with all her students – and with her rescue dog, Howie, part poodle/part Jack Russell terrier.