Christopher Fulton, Ph.D.: Helping Anxious Teens (and Parents) on the Road to College

education - Chris Fulton

Psychologist Christopher Fulton, pictured with his wife, Nicole, and children Matthew and Quinn, has seen first-hand the effects of school pressure on teens. PHOTO COURTESY CHRISTOPHER FULTON

In the last two decades, there has been a noticeable shift in the level of academic and extracurricular expectations placed on college-bound teens. A 4.0 or above GPA and top SAT scores must be accompanied by demonstrations of leadership at school, volunteering in the community and “passion and commitment” to an activity. Pressure to be accepted into the “best” college has created a new type of education “hysteria” among parents and teens, according to Calabasas-based psychologist Christopher Fulton, Ph.D. The father of two teenagers, he has seen the effects of this pressure on the teens he works with in his practice and within his own circle of friends.

How is the pressure to get into a top university impacting teens?

There is a lot of anxiety, a lot of fear facing the college application process and acceptance. These kids are so overwhelmed that they start to show physical symptoms – headaches, stomach aches and crying fits. We, as a society, are putting a lot of pressure on these kids to get into an elite college. Parents are feeling the anxiety and they are passing it on to their children. When your kids are pulling all-nighters in high school, they are getting robbed of a special time in their life. We all need balance.

What do you think of this obsession with getting in to the “perfect” college?

As parents, we need to remember that there are many paths to success. It’s better to find the right fit for your child. I recently worked with three students who decided to leave UCLA. They had good grades and had worked really hard to be there, but the school felt too big and impersonal. Just because a college is prestigious, does not mean it’s the right school for your child.

What should parents focus on to cultivate a healthy environment for their teens?

Make sure your child has a balanced life and they are having life experiences. It is a lot more valuable to work part time over the summer at Baskin Robbins than to be overscheduled and overloaded with tutors and projects that you think will look good on a college application. Our kids need to have a sense of themselves and enjoy the richness of their high school life to be well adjusted and ready to take on the challenges of college. They need to know that their parents love them and are proud of them because of who they are, not for their GPA, SAT score or how many goals they make on the soccer field. Teens need to be involved in activities just because it’s fun and they enjoy it, not because a certain college wants to see it. They also need to learn to work towards a goal and to celebrate their process and their dedication along the way. It shouldn’t be about achieving perfection. We are so focused on the goal of getting a 4.0 GPA that we’re forgetting the journey. We are teaching our kids to be stressed-out adults.

What would you like to see parents do more?

Be honest about their children’s strengths and weaknesses. Their strengths might not fit into a certain mold; it might not be what some colleges are looking for. But, we need to allow them to cultivate those strengths.

Elena Epstein is Director of Content & Strategic Partnerships at L.A. Parent.

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