Three Things Parents Should NOT Say to College-Bound Teens

Parenting is hard. When I started this adventure, I had no idea that this parenting gig lasts way longer than the promised 18 years. Whether we know it or not, our words and actions continue to shape our children’s lives well into adulthood. Our big kids still absorb what we say and internalize even the messages we didn’t mean to share.

As a college counselor who helps students transfer between colleges, often under duress, I see a lot of tense interactions between parents and their college-aged children. I watch students struggle with feelings of inadequacy as they try to recover from a rough first year of college.

Even the most well-intentioned parents sometimes inadvertently convey harmful messages to their teens. (Shutterstock NDAB Creativity)

Parents sometimes inadvertently convey harmful messages to their teens

I see the shame etched on their faces as they admit to making poor choices that led to wasted time and money. Their posture reveals their embarrassment as they recount how denial gradually escalated minor issues into major problems.

It may seem like our teens don’t pay attention to us and couldn’t care less about what we “old folks” think, but the truth is, they are always listening. And sometimes, even the most well-intentioned among us inadvertently convey harmful messages to our children.

Three harmful messages from parents

1. “If you don’t get good grades, you won’t get into a good school and you will have to go to community college.”

Inspiring teens to work hard in school is a perpetual challenge. Parents may try dangling all kinds of carrots and sticks in an attempt to get reluctant scholars to apply themselves to their coursework. Maybe you’ve tried bribing your kids with cash for good grades. Maybe you’ve grounded them for low grades. Maybe you have even tried to reason with them and explain the consequences of their choices.

I get it. As adults, we understand that the choices our kids make now may haunt them forever. We will try anything to get our kids to think about their futures and make wise decisions.

But please don’t threaten them with community college. Community college is a valid path to higher education, not a punishment for high school “rejects.” Studies show that 49% of baccalaureate degree earners spent some time in community college. In other words, it is very likely that your child will end up in community college at some point. How do you want them to feel while they are there?

It’s also important to recognize that only the privileged can dismiss community college as a backup plan. For many low-income families and first-generation students, community college is the only accessible entry point into higher education. If we teach our kids that attending community college is shameful, we also teach them to belittle their peers who may be choosing between community college and no college at all.

2. “We are only going to pay expensive tuition for a good school. If you can’t get into a good school, you will have to get scholarships.”

When is a particular college worth the cost? When it has a famous name? When it rejects more students than it admits? When it provides a solid education? When it meets your child’s specific needs?

You can define college value however you wish. But please be mindful of conflating the value of a college with the value of your child. The college admissions process is stressful enough as it is. Students don’t need the added pressure of believing that parents find their existence to be less worthwhile if they cannot gain admission to a top-ranked school.

You might say, “I’m only willing to pay $80k/year for an Ivy League school,” but what your child hears is, “You are worth $80k to me if you gain admittance to Yale, but you are only worth $30k to me if you get into an average college.”

When is your child worth the cost? Make sure they know that they are ALWAYS priceless to you. But also talk frankly about the costs of college and what your family can honestly afford. Don’t promise to go into debt for one level of achievement, but threaten to pull funding entirely for another. Create a realistic budget, and apply it to whatever college turns out to be the best fit for your child.

3. “If you don’t get top grades, I am cutting off financial support. I’m not paying for you to goof off.”

Yes, it’s painful to watch your child fail classes that you paid tens of thousands of dollars for. But in my experience, students rarely WANT to fail. Low grades usually come as a result of natural growing pains and the slow acquisition of life skills.

When I meet a student who has failed out of college, the story usually goes like this: Smart kid doesn’t know how to study. Newfound freedom in a novel environment puts stress on fledgling time management skills.

Shame and embarrassment prevent smart kid from going to office hours or visiting the tutoring center. Fear of failure leads to denial and depression.

Then what? Will our children return to us to seek wisdom and comfort? Will they come home, regroup, and then fly the nest again with renewed confidence? It depends on how we promised to behave. Students who understand that we have placed a dollar value on their success or failure may continue to flounder alone.

Unconditional love is priceless

Tell your teens how much you love them, just as they are. Yes, they will roll their eyes, but that’s OK – they still hear you!

In their darkest moments, in the face of college rejection, academic failure, or difficult adult decisions, they will remember that their lives have inherent value. They will know that their worth is not tied to their achievements or diminished by their mistakes.

And if we are lucky, they will ask us for help when they need it.

More Great Reading:

Both Sons Transferred Colleges After Freshman Year: Here’s What I Learned

About Jaime Smith

Jaime Smith, M.A., MS.Ed., is a Certified Educational Planner with 25 years of experience in the field of education. As a college advisor, Jaime specializes in transfer admissions, homeschoolers, neurodiverse learners, and other non-traditional applicants. A California native, Jaime now lives in Oregon with her husband and pet bunny. She has one daughter, a former homeschooler turned transfer student who just started grad school. Learn more about Jaime at and follow her on LinkedIn.

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