School acceptances: The Agony and the Ecstasy

Depending upon whether your child is entering preschool, on-going (elementary) school, middle school, high school or even college next year, this is the time of "acceptances" and "rejections." You may have already heard whether your child was accepted into a particular school, or you may still be waiting to hear. It is a time of anxiety and dread, of agony and ecstasy. And your child stands to be caught in the middle of a very adult phenomenon and to be burdened by it and suffer unduly because of it.

There are two times of the year when my office is flooded with parental "victims" of the school system here in New York. The first time is in the fall, when children are being interviewed and tested for the next level of schooling. The second time is now, when they are either waiting to hear whether their child has been accepted into a school, or when they've just found out. Regardless of how you feel about the way in which New York's school system operates, it is a system within which your children have to operate, and it is important to have an understanding of how to support them in getting through the acceptance process so that it doesn't undermine their self-confidence. And lest you believe that I'm addressing only those parents whose children did not (or will not) get accepted to the school of their choice, read on. I assure you that even children who did gain entrance into a particular school are at risk for lowered self-esteem unless you handle the matter well.

Applying for and hearing about acceptance into any level of schooling (and not differentiating between public or private) can be a process ridden with anxiety for both parent and child. Children often feel judged and criticized, and pressured to perform at a certain level of ability in order to get into a "good" school. When parents add their overt anxiety into the process, the stress can be overwhelming for the child, and can cause her to doubt her self worth. While you may know in your heart that not getting "accepted" to a certain school doesn't mean that your child is less worthy than others, when you exhibit disappointment, anxiety or other negative emotions about this process aloud, it's likely that your son or daughter will feel rejected and blamed. As difficult as it may be, it's important to keep your negative feelings private so your child isn't burdened by them. Keep the following in mind:

* Don't talk about the school "process" in front of your child unless he brings it up.

* Be attuned to her feelings instead of your own, and acknowledge them in a neutral and accepting way.

* Reassure your child that things will work out (even if you're not sure). If he got into a school, but it wasn't your first choice, emphasize that the school wanted him very much, and affirm how important that is.

* De-emphasize "acceptance" and instead emphasize that you think the school will be a good "match" for your child. Even if you don't believe that to be true, it's more important that your child feel comfortable than that she be exposed to your doubts. And remember, you're not a fortune teller, and despite any misgivings, the school may indeed work out well for your child.

* If your child did not get into any of the schools you applied for, it's understandable that you would feel highly stressed as you scramble to make arrangements for next year. However, your child must be protected from that stress as much as is humanly possible. Try to make phone calls when your child is not around, and as much as you can, maintain an outward appearance of confidence for his sake.

Now what if your child does get into his first choice school? This too, has pitfalls. First of all, many parents are so relieved and genuinely excited that they broadcast their child's successful admission to other parents and children. This can be extremely hurtful to others who may not be as fortunate as your child was. In addition, when low-key excitement crosses the line into bragging, it can actually backfire and hurt your child in the long run:

Michael was overwhelmed with excitement when his son, Edward got accepted into a well known school for children who are intellectually gifted. He told everyone he could think of, often putting his arm around his son and bringing him into the conversation. Loudly and frequently, he broadcast how smart his son was. Although the short term effects of this behavior initially made Edward feel proud and important, he soon began to wonder if he'd be able to make it in this new school. Self-doubt crept in, and he would lie awake at night wondering if he really was "smart enough." When school began, Edward discovered, as all children will, that he had both strengths and weaknesses, thus, while he got A's in many subjects, he also received B's. Although B is a perfectly acceptable grade, because Michael had bragged about Edward's brilliance, Edward berated himself for getting "lousy grades" and began to call himself stupid. This self-talk fueled a gradually declining sense of self-esteem, and Edward's grades began to slip in all areas until his father finally got him into counseling where he could examine the negative cycle he'd gotten caught in and make some different choices.

The most critical component to your child's success in school will be your enthusiasm and support of your child. The key to real success is not whether your child is going to a "top" private or public school, but whether he is surrounded at home by adults who love learning themselves. When you enter into the learning process with your child, taking time to be with him when he studies, continuing to improve yourself by reading, and showing interest and enthusiasm when he talks about what he's learning, then he will be successful, no matter what school he goes to.