To many parents a liberal arts education is no longer considered a realistic option for their children. Successful parents want successful children and as such expect them to go to highly competitive schools and study subjects deemed necessary to accelerate economic advancement.
The external pressures to get into a competitive school, however, can be overwhelming to a child. Admission into a “good school” has become harder and more complicated. The world of higher education has changed dramatically over the past decade. Being a good student is no longer enough. In addition to good grades and high test scores, you now need to demonstrate that you participate in sports, extra curricula activities, do volunteer work and have completed several advanced placement courses. Even the college essay has become a monumental task, requiring professional assistance.
In the “old” days students would apply to a handful of schools but now with the advent of the common application, a high school student can now send applications to 900 different colleges with a single click of a mouse. The common application has increased the pool of applicants at each college significantly, resulting is much greater competition.
The college application process has become so complicated that it requires sophisticated strategies and the aid of a dedicated college coach with a specialized software program to develop a personalized strategic plan. Do you apply early decision, early admission, regular admission, how may schools should you apply to, how many safety schools, how many should be reach schools? You can now sit in front of a computer program and see how your child statistically stacks up to past applicants who applied to each respective school based upon grades, test scores etc.
The severity of competition is even more intense for those kids who live in highly educated and affluent areas. It is difficult for a child to stand out from their peers when they live in a town where their cohorts all have grades and test scores two standard deviations above the norm. Being from a northeast suburb can also be a disadvantage when applying to colleges that desire student bodies that are geographically, ethnically and economically diverse.
While many students are academically strong, some lack the emotional aptitude required to handle the intensity of the application process. The pressure from parents, peers and one’s self can be overwhelming to the child. Many kids I see in my practice suffer from low self-esteem. They fear that if they don’t get into a good school they will let down their parent or perhaps be ostracized by their peers. Going to classes each day, while your classmates flaunt their early admission acceptances on Facebook or by wearing collegial emblems on their clothing can bring up feelings of inadequacy.
Overwhelmed by all this pressure, it is understandable why a senior in high school might become overridden with anxiety and exhibit symptoms such as an inability to relax, always feeling on edge, irrational fears of impending doom, restlessness, feeling tense and having difficulty concentrating. Sometimes general anxiety can manifest somatically as stomach pain, panic attacks, muscular tension, headaches or insomnia.
Some kids try to overcome their fears by irrational thoughts or ritualistic behaviors. They become obsessed with the college application process and cannot think of anything else. They cannot control these intrusive thoughts and they find it difficult to relax or even perform chores. In many instances, the child’s academic performance begins to deteriorate due to an inability to focus. Some kids develop compulsive behaviors as a means of avoiding these negative thoughts. They watch television excessively, play endless video games, constantly surfing the internet, spend significant amounts of time on social media, or even watch hours of pornography. Many even turn to alcohol and drugs for temporary relief.
High school students can also be plagued by depression. In children, depression can manifest in many different ways. For example, some kids with depression might feel sad, hopeless, have difficulty concentrating, sleep poorly, have little appetite or an inability to experience pleasure. Others can experience depression in how they interact with others. They can be socially withdrawn, avoid responsibilities, procrastinate, or become emotionally sensitive.
Some kids manifest their depression by exhibiting oppositional behaviors. They can become agitated, aggressive or even antisocial. Kids who have been well behaved can suddenly become deviant. It is common for students to feel embarrassed, ashamed, or over ridden with guilt about failing to live up to expectations. Many kids, as well as their parents, have separation anxiety and get nervous even with the idea of the child going off to college is mentioned.
Many high school students feel alone and isolated in their suffering. They feel like they have no one to turn to who can understand their pain and give unbiased advice. They fear rejection by their parents, teachers and friends.
Kids are often relieved to finally have someone who they can talk to confidentially, in an open manner, without the fear of criticism or judgement. Many can finally admit that the issues that are bothering them have been around for a long time. They can explore their family dynamics in a safe environment and begin work through the age-specific developmental issues of separation and self-identity, which can be overwhelming and confusing to a child at this age.
Who are they? What do they they want to be when they grow up? How do they get their needs met? How do they become that person they want to be? What is the path they should pursue that will make them happy? And most importantly, what college do they want to go to and what subjects should they study?
Surprisingly some kids feel a sense of relief when they discover they will be going to one of their safety schools. Safety, especially to a child, is not always a bad thing, and often times a welcomed surprise.
Dr. Martin Klein Is a clinical psychologist who practices in Westport CT. He specializes in working with high school students who struggle with issues of anxiety, stress, depression, low self-esteem and addictions. He works closely with students and their families who are going through the college application process.
Dr. Martin Klein, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist who practices in Westport and Branford CT. He works with children, adults and couples.