Dear Dr. G.,
I have two major problems with my kids. I am the mother of three children. My 21-year-old daughter has applied to Ph.D. programs in clinical psychology and my 18-year-old daughter is currently awaiting college acceptances. Thank goodness my youngest, a 16-year-old boy, won't be applying to schools for another two years.
The waiting game with my two daughters is taking a toll on me and my family. The 21-year-old, who we can call Jill, calls me from college constantly. I dread these calls. Jill is so anxious about getting into graduate school. She talks about how she might not get in and then expects me to respond. The problem is that I am not sure what to say. Everything I say seems to be wrong. If I say that we just need to wait and see what happens, she accuses me of implying that she will not get accepted to graduate school. If I suggest that she talk to her father, she accuses me of not wanting to talk to her.
Now, let's talk about my 18-year-old, who we can call Lydia. Overall, Lydia is less anxious than Jill. During her senior year, things have changed with Lydia. She is a nervous wreck. She feels that if she doesn't get into one of her two top-choice colleges, then she will be unsuccessful in her life. Whenever a friend or fellow student gets accepted or rejected from a college, my formerly calm Lydia melts down. She is fixated on college. I am not really sure why she is so obsessed with this. My husband and I did not go to top-tier schools. Despite that, we both have excellent careers. We believe that we have never put pressure on our kids to go to top colleges or graduate school. Maybe we have in some way that we are not aware of.
All of this tension has put a strain on the entire family. I am on edge whenever Jill calls to express her anxiety. It is really hard for me to watch Lydia being so anxious. I have started developing headaches, and I am sure that this is related to the tension that both of the girls are feeling.
My husband and I feel ineffective. We just don't know how to react to our daughters. Please advise before we all fall apart.
A Worried Mother
You truly are in an unenviable position with two daughters awaiting acceptances and possible rejections. I understand the high tension level that your daughters are experiencing. They are both in a holding pattern and feel that they are not in control of what will happen. Ambiguity is extremely difficult for all of us and is especially difficult for those awaiting important decisions.
There is nothing that I can tell you that will eradicate your daughters' anxiety but I can offer 8 ways to handle the anxiety that your daughters' are currently experiencing and the disappointment associated with rejections, should that be the outcome.
- Bear witness to your daughters' experiences. You do not always need to have a response to what they are saying or experiencing. Sometimes simply listening and bearing witness is all that is necessary. This can make you a very important support person during this process. They will appreciate this.
- Don't escalate the situation. Remain calm in the face of anxiety and disappointment, even if you have to fake it. Talk to your partner or friends about your own feelings. Your children have enough on their plates without having to absorb your feelings. I know that this is hard but it is necessary.
- Similarly, do not make the situation about yourself. Let the children discuss their own feelings without bringing up your own experiences. This is about them, not you. In the future, you may want to share your past experiences, but not now. Timing is everything.
- Ask your daughters' what they need. Consider asking how you and your husband can help. Perhaps, they just need you to listen. They may want to speak with a professional. You may be surprised by their responses.
- Take the opportunity to explain that life does not stop while awaiting school responses. Encourage them to continue to exercise, socialize, and enjoy small moments during the day.
- Try to teach your children that their value is based on much more than where they do or do not go to school. This may be a tough one to teach but it is essential and more importantly, it is true.
- Please do not compare your daughters to each other, their friends, cousins, or their peers. This only increases anxiety and creates animosity in relationships. It does not sound like you are doing this, but be mindful.
- While no one wants to be rejected, rejection is inevitable in all of our lives. The hope is that experiencing a rejection becomes an opportunity to bounce back, recover, keep it moving, and become a more resilient individual.