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Your child didn’t get into their first choice for college. Now what?

April 7, 2023, 5:15 PM UTC
Mother comforting daughter
You can help your teen bounce back from a college rejection.
ljubaphoto—Getty Images

’Tis the season for viral college acceptance videos. You know, the ones that feature stressed-out high school seniors staring at their email and scanning quickly for news about whether they’ve been accepted or rejected into their top choice. While the videos are good-natured in theory, and getting into one’s top pick is certainly cause for celebration, such videos can be a major source of anxiety for teens who were rejected from their favorite school.

It’s a scenario cognitive scientist Sian Beilock, president of Barnard College and president-elect of Dartmouth, has observed for years now.

“Teens today are bombarded by the content on their social media feeds, and college acceptance season is no different,” she shares. “Uncertainty about the future can be a major source of anxiety, and I worry that the constant stream of reminders on social media can cause students to home in on their rejections instead of looking at the bigger picture.”

To help teens navigate what can be an anxiety-riddled time in their life, Beilock has four tips for parents and caregivers:

Help your teen gain perspective

Beilock does this by encouraging her students to “remember their whole movie.”

“Our brains tend to latch on to our most recent failures—called recency bias—causing us to forget that our lives are made up of more than the last time we failed,” she explains. “Adults can encourage students to remember times when they succeeded as a way to help process this hard situation, and also to start imagining what the future might still hold.”

Open up about your own disappointments

Being vulnerable is another way to bond with your teen and get them to open up about what they may be feeling.

“Everyone has times in their life when they don’t get a job or an opportunity they want. It’s perfectly normal to feel disappointed, but students need to be reminded that they are not alone,” says Beilock. “Even those people they think of as most successful in life have lots of rejections in their past.”

Encourage your teen to develop and practice stress-reducing habits

Mindfulness practices such as meditation and saying self-affirmations, also known as “value affirmations,” can help your teen better manage stress and anxiety as they activate the brain’s reward system, says Beilock. Research shows that self-affirmations have been known to improve problem-solving skills in people who are stressed.

One study even found that students practicing self-affirmations through writing activities in the two weeks before a test had a lower stress response measured by stress-inducing hormones than those who did not perform the brief activities.

“Those brain reward responses seem to be a powerful vehicle for turning down the brain’s stress alarm system,” David Creswell, a professor of neuroscience and psychology at Carnegie Mellon University and researcher in self-affirmations, previously told Fortune. And these practices can help reduce dwelling on the negative feelings and distress prompted by college rejections.

Celebrate your teen’s whole identity (not just the one you wish for them)

Beilock’s research has shown that celebrating various parts of our identity is essential in picking ourselves up in the face of adversity or when a facet of our identity gets challenged. 

“If a student only sees themselves as a future Harvard grad, getting a rejection letter will be crushing,” she explains. “If instead they are encouraged to embrace not just other college destination options, but also other parts of their identity—as a friend, artist, athlete, or member of a band, these kinds of blows land a little more gently because students know they have something to fall back on.” 

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