In my NYC therapy practice, I come across a lot of teens, young adults, and their families who feel really stuck around college. From choosing a college to how to manage coursework once they get there, this time in a teenager’s life is full of questions and potential lessons. But this is also a time, albeit challenging, that is full of opportunities for teens to learn some imperative lessons–both in and out of the classroom– that will help them grow into healthy, balanced adults.
Picking a College: The Importance of Keeping Perspective
A big part of my therapy with teens is figuring out how to keep perspective, even as you are making big decisions about the future. Many teens can get tunnel vision during the college application process and begin to operate under the belief that a certain school or tier of schools is the only way they will have any future success. This creates an immense amount of stress and pressure and can leave kids feeling anxious and full of fear.
In therapy for teens, it is useful to move towards this fear and explore it–to ask: what will happen if you don’t get into your top choice school and what is scary about that? Giving teens room to explore that question is a good way to help them confront this fear and make it seem less frightening and overwhelming. It is also an opportunity to talk about an even bigger life lesson, which is how to cope with things that are out of your control. Teens have some semblance of control over what they are sending to colleges (i.e. grades, experience, etc.) but once the application is sent, it is out of their hands. Someone else is making this important decision for them.
As an art therapist, I find that art-making is very helpful for teens who are going through big transitions such as this one. Art-making can help channel these overwhelming emotions and can also serve to give insight and direction.
The Right Classes for You: The Less Obvious Lessons
Another hot topic in the therapy room are classes and the challenges that arise in coursework. Oftentimes the most challenging part of a course has nothing to do with the content of the class. Teens need so many skills to survive and thrive in their college experience that have less to do with book smarts and more to do with autonomy. They need to know how to pick a course that works for them and suits their learning style. They need to take into account class size, grading (i.e. essay vs. multiple choice test), and teaching style (i.e. reading vs. experiential). Students need to learn how to self-motivate and organize in this setting, where no one reminds them what to study and when assignments are due. They also need to learn how to tolerate disappointment and things not working out, such as how to deal with a tough teacher or cope with a bad grade.
In therapy with college students, there is the opportunity to develop all of these life skills that are not necessarily being taught so directly in the classroom. For example, there is space to talk with a high-achieving student who just got their first bad grade and learn what that grade represents for them, how it might feel like a threat to their identity, and what can be learned from receiving that grade, beyond just how to be sure to get an “A” next time.
The College Experience: Creating Resilient Adults
In college, a student will experience the ups and downs of life on their own for their first time. It is important to take a look at any challenges a teen is having with the downs as information that more growth and development is needed. Furthermore, needing to develop new skills is a not a sign of weakness or that something is “wrong”, it is merely a reflection of where that person is at. When teens have the support and guidance to learn what to do with these ebbs and flows, they gain the confidence to continue to grow into resilient, autonomous adults. When they have the safety net of a good support system, it helps them become unstoppable adults.