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Parents' Role in Decision Day — When to Speak Up and When to Keep Quiet

Have you figured out what role you play in helping your teen decide where they want to go to school next year? If your answer is: “I have no idea,” you’re not alone. 

Over the next few weeks, you will be spending a lot of time listening to your child agonize over which college to attend. And as difficult as it may be to watch them go through this process, your role is to listen, guide, and ask questions

Back off but don’t back off

How is that for a mixed message?

But seriously, take a step back and recognize that this decision is stressful and scary for your teen. But that doesn’t mean they can avoid making the hard decisions.

Now is the time for them to dig in, ask and answer some difficult questions, and take responsibility for their life. 

As for parents, this is where you learn to practice patience and grace. You need to stay involved, but try to avoid scrutinizing the entire process.

Listen, listen, listen ... and then talk

It can be hard to know when to help and when to back off.

Yes, you are the parent and this decision does involve you. But it’s also important to recognize and accept that your teen will ask for help when they are ready to hear it.

Because let's face it: teens talk. And when they do finally open up, the words never seem to stop. But the talking they do is often a way for them to process what is going on in their heads.

They don’t necessarily need you to respond to everything they are saying. It’s much more useful if they can use this space as a way to bounce ideas around and work through the decision-making process. 

Wait for pauses in the conversation and pay attention to body language. This is often your child’s way of inviting you into the conversation. And when this happens, try to lead with a question that gives them something else to think about or a new factor to consider. 

Here are a few things you can point out that will be helpful for your teen to consider:

  • Ease and cost of getting home for visits
  • Whether the college has a good track record in their intended major
  • Whether one school has a better job placement or internship program than another
  • The differences in school environment, e.d., if one school is in the city and the other in a small town

While there are certain things you may be concerned about, such as a long walk to the cafeteria, having to share a bathroom, or those shady-looking kids you spotted on the campus visit, avoid pointing these out to your child. 

Even though you may be having fears about your teen leaving the nest, these are not the issues your teen should be considering when trying to choose a college.

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Involve them in finances

If your teen has been accepted to more than one college and they are struggling to decide which one to choose, make sure you carefully review the numbers before weighing in. 

It’s a good idea to look at the financial aid packages, cost of attendance, and other areas that will cost money before you sit down with your child. Once you have a grasp on the overall cost of each college, plus the amount of aid available, then ask your teen to join you in the next step. 

See also: 3 Major Things Your Financial Aid Award Letter Won't Tell You 

Together, go over all of the financial details. Make lists, doublecheck figures, and let your child dig in and really get to know how quickly costs add up. 

Let them review the financial aid awards and compare them to the overall costs. Ask your teen to calculate the difference and determine how much is still needed. Use our NitroScore tool to get an apples-to-apples comparison of costs at different schools. 

If all the schools they are considering are within an acceptable tuition range, use this opportunity to share in the decision-making process with them. Not only does this give your teen ownership over the decision, it also shows that you trust and honor their opinion.

If there is a significant difference in cost between the schools they are looking at, let them know about their options. In other words, if there is a maximum amount of money you are willing to contribute, your child needs to know what that number is and plan accordingly. If they are set on going to the school that is outside of your budget, they will need to find other ways to cover for the extra costs

This also gives you the opportunity to talk with them about student loan debt. If they need to take out a significant amount of money to cover the gap, help them work through what those payments will look like once they graduate. 

Your role is evolving

It's not unusual for this process to feel uncomfortable. After all, you've been largely in charge of your child's life for 18 year ... ceding some of that responsibility may feel unnatural. 

Helping your child make good decisions during this time can help set the stage for the next act of your parenting role. It's time to let your child step into the spotlight.

See also: 4 Ready-to-Go Checklists You Need Before College

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