Encouraging Resilience

College Guide: Encouraging Resilience

By Mary Vorsino

If Camille Baptist ’17 could speak to her college freshman self, she would tell her it’s okay to make mistakes. College, she’s come to realize, isn’t about being perfect. “Starting out, I was a little timid and afraid,” says Baptist, a junior at University of Washington. “Now I realize, every freshman is going through that.”

The transition to college has long been one of the more difficult rites of passage, and there’s growing concern among colleges nationwide that many students, while prepared academically, are not ready emotionally to deal with the challenges of attending college and living away from home.

Recent reports reveal alarming trends about the current mental state of college students. According to a 2018 report from the American College Health Association, more than 60% of college students said they had experienced “overwhelming anxiety” in the past year, while more than 40% felt so depressed they had difficulty functioning.

Between the fall of 2009 and spring of 2015, the number of students who visited campus counseling centers increased by more than 30%, according to a 2015 report by the Center for Collegiate Mental Health.

To help smooth the transition for incoming freshmen, many colleges have robust orientation programs. Kelly Dunn, who oversees the support programs at Johnson & Wales University in Rhode Island, reminds freshmen that feeling anxious is normal and a sign they’re taking on a new challenge. “We want these students to learn and to be successful,” she says. 

Experts have been urging parents to work with their children to develop resilience, coping mechanisms and, in some cases, basic life skills (washing their own clothes, managing finances, etc.). This often means giving students more independence while they’re in high school, allowing them to fail, and letting them solve their own problems without getting involved.

Stanford University instructor Denise Pope, who co-founded Challenge Success – an organization that helps educators and parents promote student well-being – lectures nationally and runs workshops, including at Punahou. She starts her workshops by asking parents to describe on paper how they’re helping prepare their children for adulthood in each of four categories: academics, socio-emotional health, positive coping strategies and life skills. The academics question is always the easiest to fill.

But most parents, she said, quickly find that they’re not doing much preparation in the other three areas – all of which are just as important to succeeding in college (and life) as excelling in reading, writing and math. “We get tutoring for academics, but we don’t get tutoring for changing a tire,” Pope says. “The way you learn is to do things.”

Learning how to be an adult means doing things on your own. That means giving teens chores and having them manage their own time. It means putting the onus on them to figure out what’s important in their lives, and letting them make mistakes. 

From elementary through middle school, parents tend to oversee many parts of their children’s lives. But in high school, parents should step back, says Christopher Obenchain, Punahou’s associate director of college counseling. By the time a teen is ready to go off to college, parents should be more of a guide – supportive, but not overbearing. “You can’t scuba dive until you scuba dive,” he says. “You encounter stimulus and then you respond. But until you have that stimulus in front of you and find a way to navigate around it, you can’t sort it out.” 

For parents, the impulse to guide their children’s lives often happens because it’s easier for them to do things themselves, Obenchain says. If there are unfinished chores, parents take them on. Some parents also believe they will be more effective at resolving problems, so instead of letting children advocate for themselves, they’ll call teachers and principals, explaining missed assignments or questioning low grades.

At a freshman parent night gathering during this past school year, Punahou School Academy Dean Lisa Stewart told parents that although they may be managers of their children’s lives when they enter the Academy, by the time they graduate, they should have transitioned to part-time consultants.

Punahou graduate Zack Mulligan ’18, now attending Brown University, says he greatly benefited from his parents’ decision to increase his personal responsibilities as he neared his senior year at Punahou. By the time he went off to college, he felt well-prepared to live independently. Yet, even though he considered himself ready for this next phase, transitioning to college still took some time. “I was feeling pretty alien in this landscape,” he says of Brown’s sprawling Rhode Island campus. “But I grew to love it.”

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