Run away! Run away! Michael Thompson on Monty Python and Motivating 11th Graders to Focus on College

Everywhere we speak across the country, we hear from families concerned about or in distress over 11th graders who are in avoidance/denial mode about the college application process. We asked psychologist Michael Thompson, author of The Pressured Child and Homesick and Happy, for his insight into the teenage psyche and his advice about putting those insights into action. Thompson has a talent for translating the science of psychology and anecdotal experience into vivid action items for parents. One of our favorites? Thompson's recounting of advice from a principal that illustrates the danger of becoming an expert on the process before your teenager does. ""If you get too far out in front of your troops," he said, "they may mistake you for the enemy." Join him here today, in part one of his two-part guest post, as he addresses how to have a meeting of the minds with your 11th grader and where Monty Python figures into the process.

There is often a lot of fighting between parents and their children during the college process, and much of that conflict takes place right at the start when parents think it is time to begin the admissions process and their children cannot see the necessity for starting so early. If you are going to attempt to motivate eleventh graders to start focusing on college in their junior year, you need to remember a couple of things about adolescent development so you don’t unwittingly crash into your son or daughter’s psyche.

First, a general truth: most human beings don’t like being motivated by other people unless they have asked for it.  Do you like it when your spouse (whom you love) or your boss (whom you may respect) want you to change the way you spend your time or think about your priorities? Most of us resist and resent getting advice we haven’t asked for.  Please remember that fact when your children don’t seem to appreciate everything you are doing for them re: college.  When you start telling them that college is so important, what a teenager feels is that her parents do not value how she spends her time.  You are talking about how essential an early start is and she is thinking, “My parents don’t respect me.  They do not understand how much I am already doing in my life.”

 From a psychological point of view, sixteen-year-olds have been working on one thing since they were eleven or twelve years old:  developing a sense of independence. They have been spending more and more time away from home and their families, they tell their parents less about their personal business because they want the privacy and they want the genuine feeling they are leading their own lives, making their own choices. High school juniors do not welcome the college process because they sense---or after watching an older brother or sister go through the process they actually know---that the college process is an open door through which your parents can jump back into your life.  No reasonable 11th grader welcomes that.

Parents need to understand that the conflict about college is often really about independence. From a child’s point of view the college admissions process threatens to roll back his or her hard-won sense of self.  College-bound kids know that it is coming, but they dread it.  They have no defense against the process other than to stave it off, to kick the can down the road until it is absolutely necessary to deal with it.  Adolescents faced with the demands of the college process often experience strong feelings of helplessness and confusion.  They react in the same way as the knights in Monty Python’s Holy Grail, “Run Away!  Run Away!”

A couple of other things you need to remember about adolescents: First, they do not, as a developmental matter, have a future orientation.  They live in the moment and their goals are short-term: getting through this class, finishing this homework assignment, attracting the interest of this boy or girl, surviving the test two periods from now.  Being able to think about the long-term consequences of your actions and effort is a developmental achievement of middle to late adolescence, ages sixteen to eighteen.  Most tenth graders do not have it; many eleventh and twelfth graders lack it as well. I know a college sophomore who called his mother and said, “Mom, I just realized….this is my life.”  She wanted to weep; she had been telling him that since he was fourteen! 

 As adults we look back and see that everything is connected, that everything has consequences.  That is not a world view that adolescents share, but it is not because they are irresponsible. It is because their brains have not developed and they lack experience. Adolescents often have a distorted view of time.  They underestimate how long things will take -- that’s why they are scrambling to finish things at the last moment.  Also, they overestimate how long bad feelings about failure (like not getting into college) will last. These characteristics are part of the adolescent brain and will continue to influence an adolescent’s thinking until his or her prefrontal lobes, the seat of judgment, are fully developed.  In young men that happens around age twenty-five and you cannot make it happen faster.  All of these traits factor into how high school juniors think about the college process.

One final thing:  children know their parents very well, they read our feelings quite accurately.  They also hear our feelings in stereo with the volume turned up, i.e. “My mom’s yelling at me.”  They almost all dislike how easily a parent’s strong feelings can unnerve them.  If you go at your child with a lot of your own anxiety about the college process, he or she will think you are “hysterical” and will try to emotionally wall him or herself off from you to prevent catching your panic.  If you try to act like the big EXPERT who knows everything about colleges, your child will try to debunk you; after all, he or she has already watched more seniors than you have go through the process.  And if you constantly compare your child’s inaction to the high level of activity shown by the brilliant (and compliant and anxious) child down the street, he or she will resent you.

Part Two of Thompson's post with specific advice for motivating your 11th grader to focus on the college application process can be seen here.

Michael Thompson is a psychologist, school consultant and the author or coauthor of nine books including the New York Times bestseller “Raising Cain” and “The Pressured Child: Freeing Our Kids from Performance Overdrive and Helping Them Find Success in School and Life..”  He is the supervising psychologist at the Belmont Hill School, an all-boys independent school outsideBoston and he has worked with students, teachers and parents in over seven hundred schools around the world.

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