College Application Anxiety for Parents! (Whose Journey is This?)

By Denise Rowden, Parent Coach

My son is a senior and we’re just starting the college application process. I’m trying to take it slowly, one step at a time — but to be honest, I’m starting to feel more than a little anxious that we’re not going to get this done! Sometimes I have to take a step back and remind myself that this is his process, not mine. I’ve already applied for college and graduated, several years ago as a matter of fact. This is not about me or what I think should happen. This is his senior year. I’m merely along for the ride and to offer whatever guidance I can.

For the most part, my son has the prerequisites most colleges require. On a side note, he’s also getting to feel the “natural consequences” we talk about so often on Empowering Parents. His freshman year wasn’t as stellar as it could have been and now he has to take a couple of night courses to make up the classes he didn’t pass back then. As a result his free time is a bit limited this year, but it’s been a good lesson for him.

We have been talking about college for a few years now, the usual “Where do you want to go?” and “What do you think you want to study?” idle chit-chat as we talk about everything that’s been going on. The answers have changed over the years as my son’s interests have changed. That was okay then because it seemed like college was a future thing.  This year, there may be a bit of aggression on my part because it feels like time has gone too fast — and now we’re on the last leg of a long academic marathon. I’m afraid we’re going to run out of steam or be sidelined by some unknown thing before we get to the finish line.

Related: Doing too much for your child?

“Have you started thinking about which colleges you’re going to apply to?” was my start into the conversation this past weekend over Sunday dinner.

“I don’t know yet, Mo Mo,” he said, calling me by the nickname he made up for me when he was younger. “I haven’t really thought about it.”

I was aghast; doesn’t he realize his future starts next June? My first impulse was to jump in and start giving directions, tell him he had to start thinking about it NOW and list off everything he’s going to need to get done before the deadline for applications closes. Instead, I took a deep breath and asked him to pass the potatoes. Again I reminded myself, this is his journey.

When my son was much younger, elementary school age, I would talk with people I worked with who had seniors applying to college. They always seemed so stressed and worried their child wouldn’t get in. Quite a few of them admitted to doing a lot of the work for their son or daughter, from filling out the application, asking teachers for recommendation letters to actually writing the college essay. I remember thinking how wrong that was and swearing I would never, ever do that for my child.

Now that I am in this position myself, I have a completely different view. I can understand the stress and anxiety that would prompt a parent to do more than is perhaps called for when helping their child over this hurdle. There is a lot that needs to be done by both the parent and child, from completing the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid), figuring out how much, if any, financial help you’re going to be able to offer, deciding which colleges to apply to, completing the applications, getting the recommendation letters, writing the essays and keeping up with all of the other myriad concerns of everyday life. It can be quite overwhelming.

Doing some of the work for him is indeed quite tempting: I want him to have as good a chance as any at getting accepted to the colleges he ends up choosing. It probably would also alleviate some of the stress I’m feeling around whether or not he’s going to get everything done on time. But is it going to actually “help”? After all, who’s the one actually going to college? Whose responsibility is it to complete the work needed to get accepted?

This is one of those situations where I can hear Debbie Pincus asking “What’s in your box and what’s in your son’s box?” While I may have been responsible in part for getting him here and helping him learn the skills to be successful, the follow through is strictly on his shoulders.

So, when I start to feel anxious that he’s not going to get everything done on time, I’ll take a step back, take a deep breath and remind myself for the hundredth time, “This is his journey.”

About Denise Rowden, Parent Coach

Denise Rowden is a parent of two adult children and has been a parenting coach since 2011. She has worked in Special Education, Alternative Education and adolescent group homes. She has a BS in Psychology from the University of Southern Maine and is currently working on her Life Coach certification from the International Coach Federation.

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