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Building Resiliency in Teens: Why Learning How to Cope with Adversity Can Boost Emotional Readiness for College (and Life)

A man teaching a child to ride a bike on a suburban street.

The college years can be an emotionally and physically demanding time. Three out of four college students say they’re stressed, according to a recent study of 67,000 college students. Worse, one in five of these students reported thoughts of suicide, while one in 10 had attempted it. This is twice the national average for adults!

Coupled with this is the dropout rate. Less than 40% of first-time students entering a four-year college graduate after four years with a degree. After six years, only 52% will have earned a degree. Success at college is not guaranteed.

I work closely with students in high school and college who struggle with the transition to college. Always, parents are eager to know, “Is my child ready for college? How can I help prepare them?”

There is no easy answer to that question. Many students experience difficulties with this life change, but some are better able to handle that transition than others. I find that emotional readiness and resilience are the best predictors of success in college and in life. The reality is that life is bound to be stressful, and teens and young adults must have the skills necessary to thrive in the face of inevitable challenges.

The fear of failure prevents growth

Parenting plays a significant role in a child’s development of emotional readiness and resiliency skills. Research shows that by the time a child reaches adolescence, his or her need to feel “secure and safe” transfers from the parental relationship to social peer relationships. There is also a shift during that time to more independence and reliance on themselves. The challenge is that it doesn’t always happen smoothly and can leave many young people with an emotional deficit.

In fact, the tried-and-true method for developing resiliency is surviving something difficult, growing from it and becoming stronger as a result. The impediment to emotional growth comes when a child is prevented from experiencing adversity, or if fear of “failure” prevents them from facing the challenge and learning from it.

Let me take a step back for a moment and talk about that dreaded concept – failure. It’s a scary word that evokes an immediate reaction for many. Failure doesn’t actually exist in the outside world. In fact, failure is a personal emotional response – a feeling you get when you don’t live up to your own expectations. Or when you feel like you’ve haven’t lived up to someone else’s expectations.

It’s helpful to think of success or failure within the framework of intrinsic goals versus extrinsic goals. Extrinsic goals are the ways we measure our success based on outcomes like admittance to a good college, having an impressive resume and getting good SAT scores. Intrinsic goals make us feel fulfilled and useful and inspire us. The more we focus on those extrinsic goals to the exclusion of the intrinsic goals, the more likely we are to feel emotional distress when the extrinsic goals don’t turn out exactly as we hoped.

The fear of failure presents most frequently as anxiety. It taps into our primitive flight-or-fight response. Our heart starts pounding, our adrenaline surges, and our mind starts racing. We’re prepared to run from the lion, but there is no lion.

Today’s overwhelming focus on the extrinsic goals is now leading to a rise of anxiety among adolescents. They feel more pressure to perform while, at the same time, they’ve had less experience at a young age taking risks, coping with disappointment and learning to solve problems on their own. There’s more dependence on family than there once was, whether that’s for economic reasons or just new approaches to parenting. Part of it is also likely due to social media, because it isolates people in a way that they don’t have to experience as much face-to-face discomfort.

The good news is that parents can help their children by letting them experience small difficulties in their lives without an immediate intervention and by teaching them healthy approaches to managing challenges from an early age, so they are equipped with resilience skills.

Anxiety during the college admissions process

It’s important for parents to be aware that the process of college admissions and college transition is just as much an emotional process as it is an academic one. Just as parents hire college advisors and college counselors to help students improve their test scores, it may be worthwhile for parents to seek therapeutic support to help their child become emotionally ready.

The process of applying to college triggers a lot of anxiety for students. Parents should be alert for potential problem behaviors:

  • How does our child seem during this period?
  • Are we noticing changes in their behavior?
  • How are their sleeping habits?
  • What are their eating habits?
  • How are they interacting with their siblings or with us?
  • How are their relationships with their peers?

Warning signs of deeper trouble might include:

  • Substance use
  • Eating disorders
  • Withdrawal from friends or loved ones
  • Low energy and interest in favorite activities
  • Poor grades

Changing the narrative can boost emotional resilience

Often, students get wrapped up in the beliefs they have about themselves. One student I was tutoring for the SAT approached the test thinking, “I’m so bad at tests. Ever since I was little, I’ve never been as smart as my classmates. Forget this. I’m just not even going to try.” I could sit with him and see he wasn’t even really reading the questions, because he already had this story in his mind. Before we could even address the geometry questions, we first had to challenge the beliefs he had about himself and develop new ones.

Even the appearance of success may not accurately reflect a young person’s emotional readiness. I recently had a client who was very high achieving – high IQ, highly motivated. That was where she found a lot of her self-worth. When she got into an Ivy League college, she was surrounded by people who were just as accomplished. She was no longer getting straight As, but Bs or even Cs. This caused so much distress that she came home after her first semester and took a semester off. If she wasn’t the smartest kid, then who was she? This was her moment of adversity, and it rocked her whole world. But out of this experience, she had an opportunity to learn what she was good at and what really excited her. Taking a step back and working on appreciating her authentic self gave her the emotional tools and perspective to move forward.

Ultimately, I encourage parents to strive for balance and help their children understand the difference between external rewards and internal fulfillment. You need both to succeed at college and at life. Accomplishing goals is important, but equally important is developing satisfaction from being present and feeling good enough about who you are right now, without expectations.

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