Tips for Parents

College Success, from the Inside

by Tracy Carreon, Young Adult Stress Coach

The moment has come. Your once-upon-a-time baby has become your young adult, making plans for college.  It’s exciting, terrifying, and more than likely, stressful. Focusing on the long list of practical decisions and necessary logistics is natural: applying to schools, choosing where to go and what classes to take, determining where to live and with whom, moving, if necessary, making sense of campus…the list goes on. These questions, choices and steps are important, meant to set your child up for the best possible experience.

But they’re only the beginning. The most important steps for your son or daughter come after all the initial pieces have been put in place: living day to day as a college student.

Here’s an unfortunate truth: every semester there are students who drop out of, or fail, my Developmental Psychology class. Please understand, I do everything within my power to help them succeed. So what happens to those who don’t? Why do they give up, flounder or simply disappear from class? I’m sure there are those who don’t like the content or the assignments or (gasp) – me! There are, without a doubt, students who struggle extensively  with study skills and time management. But I truly believe these reasons don’t account for the majority who don’t make it. In my experience there is one vital component often overlooked when considering success in college: healthy inner skills for managing stress.

More often than not students who drop out or fail haven’t cultivated positive tools for managing life’s ups and downs, those curveballs and challenges that come with the complex, multi-faceted experience of being a human with expanding responsibilities. I’ve been “adulting” for over a quarter century and still have to practice – daily – small acts that I know strengthen my own coping capacity.

The idea that student retention is impacted by student stress is supported by data. In 2015 the American College Health Association-National College Health Assessment II found the top three factors negatively impacting grades were, in order: stress, anxiety and difficulties sleeping. I find the results to be in complete agreement with what I witness  in my own classroom, and for that reason, as both instructor and Young Adult Coach, I’ve made it my overarching purpose to help students learn positive habits for well-being.

As a parent of a teenager about to start high school, and one who works with college students on a daily basis, I know we seek more than just the right physical environment and effective study skills for our kids. We want them to be ________________.  Fill in the blank for yourself. Happy? Successful? Comfortable? Supported? Challenged? There is much we desire for them. And one of the greatest things we can give them are tools to scaffold their journey to full independence, and to a life filled with all those adjectives we use to complete that meaningful sentence.

I often envision adolescence – neurologically the period between 12 and 25 – as a bridge. A bridge that links childhood with full-fledged adulthood.  The time spent crossing the bridge provides a vital opportunity to learn, prepare and grow in ways that can make significant differences across the lifespan. Neuroscience tells us the brain doesn’t stop developing until about 25 years of age, and adolescence is one of the most sensitive periods for shaping and changing the brain. The experiences and thoughts had during that time play a large role in “wiring” the way the brain processes and responds to stress, challenge and opportunity. Thankfully, the brain is malleable throughout life, but adolescence provides a uniquely salient time for creating and honing positive inner habits that last.

As parents, how do we begin? How do we make the most of this significant opportunity, and ensure our kids are prepared to head off on their own – not just externally, but internally? We can’t take the walk for them. We can’t keep them from every bump in the road, and truly we wouldn’t want to – those bumps provide chances to strengthen their skills and learn just how competent and capable they are. But we can send them off with some seeds and the means to nurture them.

5 Tips for Helping Your Young Adult Cultivate Healthy Inner Habits

  1. Begin the conversation. Ask your son/daughter what their typical level of stress is on a scale of 1-5. Don’t push them to share more than the number, but provide a comfortable space to do so, if they’d like. Then just listen. This can give you a sense of how big a role stress plays in their life.
  2. Ask how he/she manages stress when it’s felt, and share your own experience. Begin to notice how they take care of themselves. Healthy coping skills are those that build up a sense of ongoing well-being, confidence, empathy and happiness, rather than those that merely provide a momentary escape. Again, listen. Ask if they feel they need, or would like, to learn new ways to manage their stress.  If so suggest that perhaps you could explore some together.
  3. Research Mindfulness. It’s my number one go-to, for myself and to teach. It has evidence-based studies to show that it can actually reshape the brain for greater focus, less reactivity and an increased sense of calm. It’s a part of my curriculum and I’ve had students tell me it changed their life.
    • Check out the book Altered Traits by neuroscientist Richard Davidson and psychologist Daniel Goleman.
    • Try this brief mindful breathing exercise I created for my classes:
  4. Practice Gratitude. Doing so as a family is a nice way to create an ongoing habit for your adolescent, and to encourage a culture of thankfulness in the home. Studies have shown taking time to notice and record what you’re grateful for, as well as sharing your appreciation with those for whom your grateful, can raise levels of optimism and confidence about life.
    • Ideas for getting started:
      • Dedicate a jar or vase for leaving small notes of gratitude to be read at a designated time.
      • Suggest the whole family download a Gratitude app for use as a more personal practice.
      • Encourage writing Gratitude Texts or Letters, expressing thankfulness to special people. Model this by writing one to your child. And then read it to them or slip it in their room to find.
  5. Watch this short video with your child and use it as a conversation starter The video shows how we all have within us the capacity for compassion and generosity, and the capacity for fear and anger. Ultimately, we choose which aspect to strengthen. Such strengthening comes through practicing skills, that then become habits, and finally are woven into the very fiber of who we are. Though I’ve named it last, this is a good place to start because it gives deep purpose to all the rest.

I could go on for a very long time, just ask my students, and my son. But I strongly believe that what must come first is the recognition that stress is a part of life, and learning to manage it well is a worthwhile endeavor.

We can’t keep our children from experiencing stress. When I ask my students what causes them stress they name the very things that make up their lives. They recognize that they don’t want to, and can’t, just get rid of everything they perceive as stressful.  What we can do, as parents, is encourage and model the ability to develop and grow in the midst of what is challenging. We can help them realize stress management is a skill, just as note-taking and time management are. But these are the skills that not only make college, work, relationships and life more meaningful, they’re the very ones that make us who we are.

Ultimately we can’t dictate or control the road our children take through life, but we can dedicate time and space now to helping pave their way, from the inside.  

About the Author

Tracy Carreon has been an educator, wellness coach, group facilitator, and speaker for over 25 years.  She began teaching English in high school classrooms, becoming quickly –  and heartbreakingly – aware that her students were missing skills beyond academics vital to their success…skills such as coping with stress, managing emotions, balancing life’s responsibilities and setting meaningful goals. This realization led her to earn a Master’s degree in Mental Health Counseling and certifications in Emotional Intelligence Assessment, hypnosis and Mindful Coaching.

Throughout her career, she’s worked with diverse populations – from at-risk teens to women in recovery to government and corporate employees – facilitating psychoeducational classes, workshops and talks on Stress Management, Emotional Intelligence, the Science of Happiness  and Mindfulness. She’s written an award-winning novel and a workbook for goal-setting, as well as produced a guided imagery CD for managing stress.

For the past several years, she’s been a Developmental Psychology instructor at Front Range Community College, and continues to coach, facilitate groups and deliver presentations. With a great deal of passion for those she works with and the content she shares, she seeks to blend the latest in neuroscience, psychology, and wellness principles, to help inspire clients and audiences to unlock their brain’s potential for increased resilience, focus, awareness and meaningful living.

With R.E.A.L. Coaching, unlock the power of your brain to:

    • Reduce the impact of stress on your mind and body

    • Increase Emotional Agility, Optimism and Joy

    • Uncover the career, relationship and life goals that mean the most to YOU…and make them REAL!

Learn more about R.E.A.L. Coaching

or contact Tracy Carreon by email for more information ([email protected])

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