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Ask an Expert: My son is slacking on his college essay.

Q. My son, a high school senior, is driving us mad by putting off his college essay and applications. I know I am not alone. He’s been a very strong student overall and my wife and I can’t believe he’s not putting the time and thought into writing his essay. Any tips on how we can encourage him without putting him on the defensive?

Talk to your child

I answer this question assuming you already asked your child directly why he is putting off his applications for college and that you did not get a straight answer.

There are three main reasons why he can’t answer this question directly; one, he truly doesn’t know why. Two, he is too ashamed or scared to admit why. Three, he may be unmotivated and not aware of the consequences of applying late. There are other plausible explanations, but these would be the most likely.

If the problem is related to number one, he will benefit from having a professional evaluation done to explore the deeper meaning or causes of his avoidance of this difficult task. Before you go there, you can try a couple of things. If the problem is related to the second possibility, you would want to rephrase the question of why he is not doing this to a safer and more supportive approach of “It can be very scary to do this, or intimidating to do this. Lots of kids put this off. Do you have any strong feelings about that?” Even another way to validate his feelings would be, “I wouldn’t be surprised if you were worried, overwhelmed or scared about this. I would be.” This is an example of going with a child’s resistance, which can usually soften their defense.

If that is not working, you may try the strategy for the third possibility. If he is truly unmotivated and naïve to the consequences of procrastination, offer a reward for completing his applications. The reward can be a dinner with you at a favorite restaurant (a win-win for all) or another fun family activity. A reward system like this tends to work if the child has no deeper undercurrents for his lack of motivation. You may also want to sit him and directly explain the consequences of applying late; no spots left, bad choices for dorms, etc. (You have probably already tried that).

Either way, you are also best trying to temper your own frustrations about this. You are likely annoyed by this and tempted to lecture him, ground him, smack him upside the head. These strategies can work but more often lead to anger, stress and stronger resistance. Additionally, punitive strategies usually do not help with long-term change for a child. For example, it likely won’t teach him lasting skills in how to handle procrastinating.

I would urge you to be patient, do your best to stick with a problem solving, active listening and corroborative approach on this.

– Steve Sarche

Living with consequences

This is a tough time for kids and parents. Trying to figure out the emotions on either side of the divide would need a crystal ball.

One moment you can’t stand the thought of sending him off to college and the next moment packing his room can’t come soon enough.

There is no magic bullet for helping kids stay on a timely track for college paper work. Having worked with many seniors and many parents of seniors I know the paths are quite divergent.

Your son may have to live with the consequences of his choices, e.g. not getting into a school because he missed the deadline. Loving and supporting him though that minefield will be part of your job as parents.

Sometimes kids don’t get their paper work in and it’s quite deliberate. For reasons known only to them they had quite a bad case of what Shel Silverstein called the Whatifs—here are a few, but you can fill in your own whatifs– most of us can.

Last night, while I lay thinking here,
some Whatifs crawled inside my ear
and pranced and partied all night long
and sang their same old Whatif song:
Whatif I’m dumb in school?. . . Everything seems well, and then
the nighttime Whatifs strike again!

“But my son is so capable” you might say. Remember the whatif’s don’t depend on reality, but the perception of reality. This time is one of major transition. Your son still needs his parents to be loving, supporting, nudging, believing that he can and will do what is right for him to do.

Don’t forget to talk to him. Ask him what his plans are. Does he plan to take a year off or will he get his paperwork in on time to the schools of his choice? Then trust him to meet the deadlines. I wish you well.

– Suzanne Lustie

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