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Supporting Your High School Senior through the College Application Season

collegeapplication"This is SO much worse than Junior year," my daughter said the other morning as she stared blearily into her coffee. It probably didn't help that moments earlier I had asked if she wanted to put on a little makeup since she was meeting a college representative at school that morning. "I am wearing make-up" she yelled. "I just look like sh*t because I slept 4 hours last night." Ooops.

Senior year begins with excitement! Finally, the traditions kids have watched from a distance – from car painting to chalking to dressing up for Halloween and parking on campus – are theirs to enjoy. But reality sets in quickly, and the pressure is on. By this point in their high school career, many seniors have full loads of high level classes and leadership roles in extra-curriculars and sports, all of which leads to not enough hours in the day. Add college applications with endless essays and decisions and it's enough to make a normally together kid feel like they are coming apart at the seams.

So ... how can you best support your senior-year student during this difficult couple of months?

Start by reminding them (and yourself) that yes, these are big important decisions, but not nearly as important as they think they are. Where they end up going to college doesn't actually determine the complete course of the rest of their lives. Remind them that there are in fact, many good choices and places where they will be happy and thrive, and in the end, if they wind up somewhere that they don't necessarily want to spend four years, they can always decide to transfer.

Help out where you can, and where they will let you. Some kids will want you to read over every line of every essay and others will choose to keep it more to themselves. For those that don't want to share the actual application process, help them in other ways. Take some chores off their plate, cook a favorite meal, fill the car they drive with gas. These are all small gestures that say, "I get it – you are overloaded, and I'm here to help."

Remember that there were actually other things you used to talk about. Try to go a day, or even a meal without mentioning college. If you have other kids at home try to remember that they also exist. Take the focus off your senior and ask a younger child or your spouse about his or her day.

Take yourself out of the loop if you need to. While many people hire outside college consultants and find it totally worth it, there are ways to remove yourself from the day to day without spending lots of extra cash. Reach out to your child's guidance counselor and have them send your student a reminder about an upcoming deadline or a college meeting. Many English teachers are more than willing to read over college essays and there are other resources at the high school as well. Call the counseling department if you are unsure of what is available.

Connect with your senior in other ways. Go for a hike or a bike ride. Watch a favorite TV show together. Take her shopping or to a show or movie. When my son went through this two years ago, I remember feeling him shrink away from me every time I walked in his room, because our entire relationship had boiled down to THE COLLEGE PROCESS. This is not something you want to happen!

Give them space. Although he may not show it, you should know that your child is more stressed than you are, for starters because he is seventeen and lacks the perspective of years lived. It doesn't help, for example, to remind him that you had, in fact, suggested he start his applications over the summer! Your child will need to blow off steam and just spend a night with friends on occasion, or play video games. Let him! Chances are he will get done what he needs to do, even if it's not the way you might have done it.

Listen, really listen, to what your senior is thinking and saying. Ask if she wants your opinion before jumping in to give it. Help her navigate her decisions, but don't make decisions for her. While my daughter cared about my opinion regarding whether to apply to a school Early Decision, she needed to make the actual decision herself, and was palpably relieved when she did.

Take care of yourself. Your heightened anxiety will only exacerbate your child's. Focus on your own life - work, friends, and hobbies. Think of it as practice for your soon-to-be emptier nest. You need to be there for your senior as a measure of calm and comfort, and an example of a balanced happy adult, so they will actually want to grow up and do the things they need to do!

Finally, keep in mind that while junior year was more like a marathon, the fall of senior year is a sprint. In less than three months, it will be January 1 and the hardest part will be done. Applications will be out and the tension level will go down as the class begins to relax, bond, and enjoy the second semester of senior year. And in the blink of an eye you and your child will be walking the aisles of Bed Bath and Beyond with that dorm room checklist, as a new chapter begins.

stonbergJulie Stonberg is a clinical social worker at Westchester Family Counseling in Hartsdale, www.westchesterfamilycounseling.com.

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