Did you know that if you help a butterfly out of its cocoon, it will die? The struggle to get out of the cocoon builds the muscles that a butterfly needs to fly. If it is not given that chance to struggle, it loses its ability to survive. In humans, adolescence is like that period in the cocoon. Our adolescents need to develop the skills they need to be independent before they leave our cocoon.
In his article, A Very Dangerous Place For a Child Is College, Dr. Louis Profeta urges parents to consider whether their children are ready for college. An emergency room physician, Dr. Profeta, has crossed the country, speaking to parents about the tragedies he has witnessed because of kids who were not emotionally prepared to leave home. In the article, he warns, “Do not send children to college.” College is for men and women….It is NOT a defacto summer camp. It is NOT a surrogate parent. It is NOT a place to grow up, and it’s about time we step back and contemplate, “Is my child emotionally and mentally ready for college?”
It is something to consider, given the stats. Rates of anxiety, depression, dropout, and suicide among college students have shown dramatic increases—even before the pandemic. They are expected to get even worse.
Now is the time, whatever your child’s age, to consider your most important job — to prepare them to thrive once they leave the nest. To do so, we need to focus on helping them to develop four critical systems:
Adolescence is a time when our primary relationships transfer from our family to our peers. This is a natural process to prepare to “leave the nest.” This can sometimes be hurtful to parents who find that their children are no longer interested in spending as much time together, and they find themselves in conflict more often. That is part of the struggle (think butterfly).
Conflict and pushing away is part of the effort of renegotiating those relationships. As parents, the best thing that we can do is provide the roots and wings: roots by letting them know that we are here, and we will continue to provide consistent boundaries and wings by allowing them the freedom to explore and form stronger bonds with peers. It is also important for us to help guide them in forming healthy relationships with peers.
Our brain’s reward system is driven by dopamine, which is like a text message that says, “that felt good-do it again.” Many behaviors cause a dopamine release in our brain, from drugs and alcohol to scoring an “A” on a difficult exam. Some behaviors that drive that dopamine release are healthy, others not so much. A big part of brain health is about making balanced choices about how we are getting those rewards. When students leave our houses, they will need to make those choices on their own, so they need practice and guidance to do so, which leads to the next system, regulation.
The prefrontal cortex is the part of the brain in charge of our highest level thinking skills—things like planning, organizing, impulse control. These are the executive functioning skills that guide our ability to self-regulate. To develop those skills, adolescents need practice. They need to experience the consequences of bad choices and the benefits of good ones. Temptations are abundant, and consequences get much greater once they are away at school.
Our resilience is our ability to respond to challenges, good, bad, big or small. As children handle small challenges, they begin to develop the coping strategies they will need to handle the bigger challenges they will face. As parents, it is difficult to watch our children struggle. We want to save them the pain, so we are tempted to shelter them, but that undermines their independence in the long run.
One of my favorite sayings is, “Self-esteem isn’t a gift that we can give; it is a neurochemical response that we rob someone of if we don’t let them struggle.” The good news is that every challenge offers us the opportunity to proactively help our children develop resilience. Instead of solving challenges for them, we can guide them in putting the challenge into perspective and finding the strategies and supports that they need to tackle that challenge.
Julia Lythcott Haimes, former Dean of Students at Stanford University and author of How to Raise an Adult, explains that parents nowadays seem to be raising what she calls “bonsai children.” They have created these beautiful resumes to send off to the admissions team, carefully sculpting their offspring to meet the demanding criteria. But, Lythcott-Haimes warns, just like a bonsai tree cannot survive in the wilderness, bonsai children cannot survive on their own.
So as you celebrate your child’s admission, don’t forget that there is a next, perhaps even more important, step. The next seven months offer a great opportunity to help your child to develop the Four Rs and to really evaluate whether they have the emotional maturity to set off on their own. And if they are not ready, it is okay. As Dr. Profeta says, “College will still be there. It is not a race to adulthood.” The important thing is to help them make it there.
As Founder and Education Director of Pathways to Empower, Donna Volpitta, Ed.D. makes the brain science of resilience and mental health easy to understand and apply. Her Resilient Mindset Model, which draws on the latest research in neurology, psychology, and education, has been applied to areas of leadership from parenting to corporate management. Donna is co-author of the book The Resilience Formula: A Guide to Proactive–Not Reactive-Parenting, author of Neuroworld: A Guide for Teaching the Brain Science of Resilience co-creator of the Nametags Education Program. Dr. Volpitta is a former classroom teacher with experience in both general and special education. She holds a doctoral degree in Learning Dis/Abilities from Teachers College, Columbia University, and is the mother of four teenagers.