Subtle Support 101: How Parents Can Help High-Achieving Adolescents Through Ups and Downs

The Applerouth Team
February 10, 2020
min read

Parenting the adolescent and young adult student comes with both rewards and challenges. You, as parents, and the students you have raised are poised for success….and the closer your student gets to the milestone of getting into college, the more exciting their academic and co-curricular experiences become.

Exciting, however, is not always free of stress. In fact, it might be helpful to think of “excitement” as the combination of joy and fear. It is common for students to go through some period of emotional or psychological difficulty while in school especially when their focus on getting into a good college is too defined by fear of disappointment.

Having worked for over 20 years in the counseling services of various colleges and universities, I understand that the seeds of many student struggles in college begin well before the student arrives on campus. In fact, students develop mindsets about their goals and their strengths in the middle and high school years. This tends to be especially true for students who seek admission to the most competitive colleges.

For more tips on supporting high-achieving students through struggle, we're offering educator and parent webinars with Dr. Glass and Jed Applerouth later this month.
Sign up for the educator webinar on the 19th here and the parent webinar on the 20th here.

With that trust, you can allow yourself to limit the degree to which you continue to hold the reins in your student’s life. When they are struggling, however, the instinct may be to take over. While you may need to make a strong decision sometimes, most of the time you can offer more subtle parenting by keeping a few suggestions in mind.
Although adolescents may be emphatic about their emerging independence, there is still much you can do to help them navigate these exciting years, including some of the more difficult times. All of the work you have done as a parent up to this point grants you the opportunity to trust your student to navigate most challenges associated with college life.

Idea #1: Clarify Your Support and Your Strength

Even during the adolescent and young adult years, you continue to be a primary source of support for your child. Reminding them that you care unconditionally, and that you are available when they are struggling is important. If your student struggles alone before the difficulties become evident to others, the impairment they experience from those difficulties can become more significant.

Idea #2: Overcome Common Barriers to Open Communication

For a number of reasons, it is often difficult for students to feel comfortable confiding in their parents. Three of the most common reasons are:

  1. the desire to protect you from their struggle,
  2. the fear of disappointing you, and
  3. the pressure that worried parents inadvertently create with their language.

Let’s look at each of these reasons.

The desire to protect you

Often, students may refrain from letting you know about a troubling time or an episode with a psychological problem because they wish to protect you from the hurt, confusion, and worry that they assume you’ll feel. Parents can reassure students of their inner strength and capacity to handle the worry.

Statements such as, “If you are ever going through a difficult time, it would be upsetting, but I can handle that and I want to be there for you,” can help reassure your student that you are willing and able to support them when times are tough.

Fear of disappointing you

Students, especially high-achieving ones, are often afraid that admitting to struggles will disappoint their parents. It may help keep communication open if you clarify that your love is greater than your expectations, and that you want them to be able to reach out to you if they need support during a difficult time.

Stress caused by the language of support

All parents want to see their children succeed. When parents feel very invested, it’s only natural to respond to unproductive behaviors with urgent advice. Usually, this is because, as parents, we may harbor certain fears about our children’s pursuits.

Consider refraining from advice-giving and instead try using language that will help your student think through their dilemmas and improve their problem solving skills. Sometimes this simply involves reframing suggestions into problem-solving questions. This can help activate students’ critical-thinking skills---not their defensive reactions.

For example,

Replace With
“You should...” “What would help you to..?”
“You must...” or “You have to…” “How would things change if..?”
“Why don’t you just...?” “What is keeping you from…?”
“I think you need to” “What pros and cons would emerge if you would...?"
“You’ve been through this before...”  “What do you remember helping from the last time you felt this discouraged?”

In conclusion: offering subtle support

As students complete high school and head to college, parents are critical as ever. Your role in supporting the development of their maturity is now more subtle than it once was, but your caring and support are still vital to the future of their lives and the contributions they will make in the world.

(Adapted from Parenting from a Distance: A Guide for College Parents)

Gary Glass is a licensed psychologist and the Director of Counseling and Career Services at Oxford College of Emory University. He has been working with college students and serving various campus communities for over 20 years. While he values the individual clinical work he provides, perhaps Gary’s greatest passion is translating the impact of individual counseling into community level interventions that emphasize creating empathetic and supportive campus environments. In recent years, he has focused on the unique needs and experiences of high achieving students at elite and highly competitive institutions.

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