Don't just apply to college… Position yourself.

Parents, Teens…and the Dance of College Applications

African-American single-parent familyYears ago, when I was studying group dynamics and family therapy at Columbia University Teachers College, I couldn’t get enough of the books by one of the institution’s most famous alums, Dr. Harriet J. Lerner. Her bestsellers include The Dance of AngerThe Dance of Intimacy, and The Mother Dance: How Children Can Change Your Life.  Dr. Lerner introduced Murray Bowen’s theory of family dynamics to the rest of us, with plenty of real-life examples. My favorite “Bowenisms” brought to life in her books were:  “pursuer and distancer” and “underfunctioning and overfunctioning.” To me, these concepts seem relevant to any relationship, including parent-teens; hence, they offer clues to navigating the college process.

asianfathersonAs a college consultant, I often moderate tense interactions between parents and adolescents, over clashing ideas about college, major or career goals, or parent vs. teen role expectations in the college process. Cat Stevens’ “Father and Son” plays in my head as a soundtrack. Dr. Harriet, where is The Dance of College Applications? Even without such a book, the concepts popularized in her bestsellers can offer us wisdom for the college process. In some client meetings, parents do all the talking, while the teenager averts eye contact, sometimes doodling, appearing disengaged or even sullen. Some parents speak about their adolescent (sitting right there) in third person, explaining, “We want him to go to U of X,” or “We’d like him to go pre-med.” Later, they email me, venting their frustration that their son or daughter “takes no ownership of the process.”

helicopterparentOverfunctioning parents, underfunctioning teen. This dynamic began 17 years ago. Every contest was too important to allow the child to do it independently and perhaps fail. Remember that second grade Egyptian diorama, the best sculpey reproduction of King Tut’s tomb ever displayed in your kid’s school? You should be proud! After all, you finished it while your kid scampered off to play in the middle of molding a tiny green Anubis jackal into a Sphinx pose, too impatient to wait while you fired up the figurines in the oven. The helicopter epithet is overused, but most of us have earned it at one time or another. I’ve assembled a few nifty dioramas myself. But how can we now arrest our overfunctioning tendencies when our kids are encountering rites of passage that must be about them, not us, where personal authorship is critical? 

Vancouver psychotherapist Tim Meek, PhD., offers powerful insights about over- and under-functioning dynamics that perfectly apply to parent-teen dyads during the college application process. He posts in his blog: “By ‘functioning’ I am referring to our ability to manage life (make decisions, manage time and stress, etc), to be responsible for the things we are involved with, and to operate as autonomous beings.

angrymomwithboyUnder-functioners (UFs) often rely on others to manage things for them, have problems maintaining progress on goals, and are often under-employed. UFs are often seen as ‘having so much potential but wasting it’ in the eyes of others, and can be thought of as taking less than 100% responsibility for life…  appearing to others as lazy or unmotivated, and being somewhat immature for chronological age. There are a lot of causes of under-functioning that cover the spectrum from people being over-protective, too permissive, or doing things for the person too much during earlier parts of life (or today)…

fathergirlinhall“Almost always, someone who is under-functioning is paired with, or supported by someone that is over-functioning. This person can be seen as taking more than 100% of responsibility… Over-functioners (OFs) are usually seen as people who “have it together”, are detail oriented, organized, and reliable, and are typically viewed as being good workers, partners, and parents. Classic characteristics of over-functioning include being overly focused on another person’s problems or life situation, offering frequent advice or help to the other person, actually doing things that are part of the other person’s life responsibilities (and believing that ‘if I don’t do it, then it won’t happen’), feeling anger when help is not ‘appreciated’… Over-functioning can be seen as a type of ‘enabling’.

computerdadgirl“Some causes of over-functioning are being placed in that role as a young person or assuming the role as part of a family system, having anxiety related to watching someone else make mistakes or do things that seem unwise, feeling a sense of guilt or obligation to help someone, or using the other person’s life and problems as a distraction from one’s own. The route to change for OFs is often in returning responsibility for life back to the UF. That may mean not bailing the person out for the 20th time, not reminding them of key things that other people seem to be able to remember, not asserting opinions or managing the other person’s life, and tolerating the natural consequences of what will happen in the UFs life.

Thank you, Dr. Tim. Time to get out those time-worn paperback “Dance of…” books. And Dr. Harriet, I’ve got a great book idea for you!