“But no senior ever comes to school on early acceptance day.”

I was a new high school teacher at the time, and I remember feeling dumbfounded by this kid’s revelation—that virtually every senior stayed home as they waited for our state college’s early admission announcements. 

Over the next few years, I discovered this was not some super-fun excuse for a senior skip day. In reality, most students sat at home anxiously refreshing their webpages as they waited on news that could potentially change their plans, affect their relationships, and confirm or upend their dreams. 

But it wasn’t just the students feeling the pressure. This moment was tension-filled for their parents too. 

Competition to be admitted into higher education “dream schools” continues to grow tougher year after year. And now more than ever, parents have to navigate conversations about future plans, broken hearts, and what happens when your kid doesn’t get the acceptance letter they were hoping for. 

As a teacher, I’ve had the opportunity to watch a number of parents walk through this season with their high schoolers. And while every situation was different, there are a few common things I noticed that helped parents best support their kids through the tension and transition:

  • Let them grieve. A college rejection letter can be heartbreaking, even if your kid gets into nine of his or her ten college picks. Being rejected by one of them—especially the one they hoped to attend—means letting go of some big dream scenarios they’ve been imagining for the future. For some, it can be tough to even think about moving forward before they process this loss. For this reason, it may be more helpful to think about this process resolving in days or weeks rather than hours, giving them some time to be sad before reminding them they have other options.
  • Stay close. Nobody knows your teenager like you, and nobody is more well-equipped to comfort them in challenging times quite like you. So, plan to spend some extra time together this week. You don’t have to talk the entire time, but get takeout, go for a drive, or watch a movie together. Simply having you close can make your senior feel more secure in a time when everything seems a little unsteady.
  • Unplug. Many schools post admissions in large batches, so hundreds of students will get the news all at once. This means your kid’s social media (and yours) will be flooded with photos of others announcing their acceptance. Even if your kid is happy for his or her classmates, all of that celebration and feeling left out can be a lot to take. For that reason, this may be a good week for a social media break for the entire family.
  • Help them imagine a bright future. Because our culture puts so much emphasis on “the college experience,” it can be tempting for teenagers to believe college (or a specific version of that experience) will either be perfect or awful. It will either be all they’ve ever dreamed of or the end of their story.
    In reality, we know there are more possibilities. Your high school senior may begin school on one campus and transfer to another. They may work for a year and discover a new passion. They may fall in love with a campus they never considered. There are literally thousands of possibilities they have yet to consider—all of which could potentially lead to a bright future.
    Once your teenager has had a little time and space to grieve their old plans, it may be helpful to imagine some new ones together by asking questions like, “What is one thing you hope will happen next year?” Or, “What is one possibility you haven’t considered before now?” Or, “How might next year be one step toward a larger goal for you?”

The truth is, while this season may be short lived, it will not be the last time our teenagers walk through disappointment or difficult news. The skills we help them develop now will become useful tools as they navigate change, rejection, and disappointment in their adult years.