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Dear Adina

Why Does My Smart Teen Lack Self-Confidence?

Adina Glickman


Dear Adina,

My 17-year-old daughter (junior in high school) is very smart — all A's in AP and Honors classes, but lacks a degree of self-confidence. When I asked her about searching for a college she might like, she is basically less than interested (at least outwardly).

Any suggestions for an approach to this? She is aware that the basic expectation is that she has higher education in her future, as her brother is a college sophomore. Thanks for your help.


Dear Parent,

There’s a lot to unpack here. The basic facts (A’s in difficult courses, a brother in college) alongside your perceptions (her lack of confidence, disinterest in looking at colleges) alongside what may or may not be a shared expectation that she attend college, are all floating around without a real sense of how they connect to one another.

A missing link here is what is actually going on inside your daughter’s head and heart about all of these things, so I hope you consider approaching this by asking her some questions.

If I were sitting in the room, I would want to ask:

  • “Does getting A’s in AP and Honors classes feel satisfying?”
    Maybe she’s doing it just to please you or her teachers but it doesn’t feel like it has much intrinsic value. Or if you’re feeling adventurous, “What kinds of things bring you a feeling of satisfaction?”
  • “How did you get all those A’s?”
    You may attribute them to being smart, but she may attribute them to good luck. In fact her achievements in school are in large part due to the time and effort she has invested — the hard work rather than innate smartness. Since effort is something she has control over (rather than seeing her intelligence as something that “is” or “isn’t”), you might help her see that she is making the good things happen, and that she can continue to do that. People who have been told they’re smart often find that when they encounter something that’s difficult, they think their smartness has reached its limit. But if they see success as a result of effort rather than intelligence, they roll up their sleeves and work even harder.
  • “What do you think and feel about my expectation that you go to college?”
    Maybe she doesn’t see college as the right step for her but doesn’t want to disappoint you. Or she feels she has to present a good alternative and she needs your help thinking that through. You might also probe her perceptions of her brother’s experience, and whether she feels she must live up to his example.
  • “How does my expectation line up with what you want for yourself?”
    Maybe she’s never asked herself what she wants. Or she has a potent inner critic that shuts down her creative thinking about it. Or she doesn’t see the point of college if it’s going to be like COVID-high-school all over again.
  • “How are things going with you and your friends?”
    Maybe her confidence has nothing to do with academics and it’s social stuff that is shaking her.

She may also be overwhelmed by the entire endeavor of identifying colleges that she’d be interested in. Big state school? Small liberal arts college? Driving or flying distance from home?

It can help to ask “why” instead of “where” she wants to go. So instead of trying to narrow the field by using external criteria like location and size, you get at what kinds of experiences she wants to have — intellectually, personally and socially.

For some reason, “Where do you want to go to college?” seems to have become conflated with the other impossible question “What do you want to be when you grow up?”

It might be helpful to remember (and remind your daughter!) that going to college is not tantamount to deciding on a career. College can be many things — a time to be curious and learn stuff, a place to meet people and reinvent yourself outside of the image you’ve carried thus far, an opportunity to not be someone’s child, and so on. It’s heartbreaking that so many young people only see college as a utilitarian fulfillment of parental or societal expectations or an uninspiring passport stamp that they have to get to move on to having a job.

It’s always so odd to realize that parenting evolves from our up-close-and-personal relationship with the nooks and crannies of our babies’ bodies to the time when we only glimpse the backs of their heads before they shut the door to their room. They go from being open books to obscured wisps that fly by us in a blur on their way to their lives as independent adults.

Those confusing years when they are neither transparent child nor independent adult are the mystery of the opaque teen. I applaud your interest in uncovering those mysteries. By approaching them with genuine curiosity and a sense of discovery, you are making an investment in communicating that will ground your relationship for years to come.

Yours,

Adina Signature

Have a question? Ask Adina

Adina Glickman is the founder of Affinity Coaching, which offers academic, life and career coaching to young adults. She is the former director of learning strategies at Stanford University and is the co-founder and director of the Academic Resilience Consortium, an association of faculty, staff and students dedicated to understanding and promoting student resilience. Learn more at adinaglickman.com.

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