Teen Mental Health

Not a day goes by that we aren’t thinking about teen mental health – talking to a parent about how stressed out her son is, or getting a call from a mom whose daughter is having problems at school.  COVID did a number on our teens – there’s lots of documentation to back that up – but things haven’t gotten “back to normal” in the way we all would have hoped.  

Bullying is a bigger issue than it ever was – teens today are growing up with social media in the palm of their hands.  Despite the fabulous body positivity movement, teens still struggle mightily with how they look and who will find them attractive, and they’re comparing themselves against impossible (and Photoshopped) standards.

And then, there’s the college admission process, which takes an incredible toll on teen mental health.  Students see the numbers but somehow think that if they apply to a dozen of those schools that admit fewer than 10% of their applicants, they may just get lucky. [Here’s an article, by the way, that shows you why this won’t be a successful strategy.] Every year, we see students push themselves (or be pushed by their parents) to apply to an overwhelming number of colleges with miniscule admit rates – schools that we consider “reach” or “unlikely” for pretty much everyone.  Adding insult to injury, schools like this often require multiple additional essays that can’t just be cut and pasted – they require research, significant thought and introspection, and an ability to articulate just the right connection with each of them. 

“Reaching” isn’t bad, but when your teenager believes that you will only love them, or you’ll be more proud of them if they’re admitted to a highly-ranked college, this is a significant source of stress and anxiety for them.

Parental involvement in college essays causes stress as well.  We ask our students to refrain from sharing their essays with their parents when they’re a “work in progress,” to wait until they have a draft they’re happy with.  We also ask students to ask their parents to only make SUGGESTIONS in their college essays, not to write directly into their documents.  This helps teens feel a sense of ownership over their essay – and it also maintains the student’s voice, which is really what college admission offices want to see.  Parents may not realize this, but when an adult rewrites a teenager’s essay, they’re basically telling their child they don’t think the student’s work is good enough.

So in the spirit of improving teen mental health related to college admissions,  here are a few tips from the Magellan team to help reduce your child’s stress and anxiety:

  1. Manage your expectations.  College admission rates have plummeted just in the past 5 years, and many of the colleges you considered “not that great” when you were in high school may be on a different trajectory now.  What was once a “party school” may now be a great place for your kiddo to learn artificial intelligence, or the humanities, or business. Have an open mind; things have changed.
  2. Balance your list.  A college list full of “reach” schools is a recipe for disaster.  A good college list should have a handful of reach, a handful of target and a handful of colleges where you’re confident you’ll be admitted – and you should be happy with ALL of them.  More on how to balance your list here
  3. Let them write their own essay.  Yes, you know *everything* they’ve experienced in their short lives.  But only THEY know it from their vantage point.  Let them tell their story.  More on how parents can get involved in the essay process here
  4. Celebrate ALL acceptances.  You may not end up at that “safe” school that has already admitted you – but heck, aren’t we happy you got in somewhere already?!  Don’t be afraid to submit a few “safe” applications early.  You’d be surprised that the day that first college acceptance letter comes, everyone in the house exhales.  It’s a great feeling.  Celebrate it!
  5. Ask for help if you need it.  We’re here to guide teens through this very fraught process – and sometimes having someone other than mom or dad holding them accountable makes all the difference.  They won’t give us that same eyeroll they give you.  Here’s how you can reach us if you need.

If you want to learn more about the teen mental health crisis, and what you can do as a parent:

  • In this article in Johns Hopkins Magazine, the director of the Center for Adolescent Health at the JHU Bloomberg School of Public Health discusses the level of the teen mental health crisis, along with some advice and suggested solutions.  
  • This article in Psychology Today has seven things teenagers “desperately want adults to understand.”  They’re not difficult – and they’ll probably improve your relationship with your teen.

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