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The Boomerang Syndrome: When Getting Into College Isn’t Enough

I don’t envy high school kids these days. The pressure on them is intense and with each new crop of high school seniors, it seems the bar rises higher and higher.

As parents, we do our best to support our children and give them some latitude to discover their hopes, dreams and goals on their own. However, we also tend to believe that said hopes, dreams and goals are most effectively realized at the best possible college that they can get into – which probably includes even a valiant effort for the ones that are probably out of reach, because … you never know.

So, with the hope that our involvement will be read as support as opposed to pressure, we encourage our kids to participate in athletics, student government, community service, employment, social endeavors and, of course, to embrace academic rigor. After all, this path will give them the best chance of “success.” It will also help us feel pretty good that we did all that we could to help our kids achieve a level of opportunity that is commensurate with our values.

Or have we? Does a ticket to the rat race really do all that we hoped, or have we structured our kids’ lives in such a way that they have essentially become robots whose batteries are fueled by our pressure and not really by their own motivation?

The fact is, most of us got to where we are through hard work, focus, and positive role models. Most likely, we come from a generation where parental involvement was minimal and we fondly reflect on how “clueless” our parents actually were. And yet, despite having to manage twists, turns, bumps, and bruises on our own, here we are. We were able to use our intuition and the messages our families gave us about acceptable and unacceptable paths to navigate a functional, if not highly profitable, lifestyle.

The reality that parents feel more secure when their kids are on a familiar path has not changed. Parents know what they know and that is how they guide their children. However, over the last generation or so, it seems that the delivery mechanism for that guidance has changed. Where typically parents were once witnesses to their children’s lives, pointing and guiding where necessary, currently many parents have become ringleaders.

There may be nothing wrong with that, until it gets off course. In an effort to give our children the option to achieve what we have achieved – or more – we tend to sculpt their lives in ways that support this singular track.

We access their school portals, reminding them of assignments, deadlines, opportunities and events. We manage their lives in a way that optimizes their access to all that their school and community offers, and encourage them to take advantage. We tend to know where, what and when things are happening before they do.

By all appearances, this may seem to work for kids while they are in high school. Sure they feel an extraordinary amount of pressure to excel. But we want to make sure they don’t miss an opportunity to expand their knowledge of the world and possibly discover a talent or interest that carries them in a favorable direction.

But what happens when they graduate from high school and we lose access to the parent portal? For many kids whose lives have been rich and busy, and who seemingly thrive, college can be a brick wall.

Suddenly, they must learn to manage their time on their own, and they must find a way to access all of the offerings of their college without the benefit of a parent portal. And, most distressing, they have no idea how to meet their own personal standards since they don’t really know what they are.

Many of these formerly high achieving kids experience intense anxiety, feeling tremendous pressure, without knowing how to fulfill expectations. College was supposed to be amazing and replete with positive experiences and new adventures, yet they feel lost and lonely and like failures. Some will return home in despair, others will turn away from expectations, either failing out or taking advantage of the social environment at the expense of their academics.

What this boils down to is the need for us parents to consider whether our tremendous effort to get our child into college might be thwarting his or her ability to get through college.

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About Carrie Weiner Rosenbloom

Carrie Rosenbloom is a licensed marriage and family therapist, and attorney mediator in Ann Arbor, Michigan. She specializes in helping individuals and families navigate the complexities of divorce. Carrie also works with family businesses, helping them manage transitions, create succession plans, resolve conflict, and integrate a cohesive culture throughout family owned businesses. More information can…

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