Navigate The College Planning And Application Process As A Blended Family

Blended families are oftentimes some of our most challenging, yet rewarding clients. As a child of a blended family and now married to a man with two teenagers, I’ve experienced first hand what type of conflict and resolution exists in blended families.

When there’s been a divorce, you’re dealing with two parents who once loved each other but for some reason have gone their separate ways. And there are others involved – a child or children.

A divorce usually means I can count on more than the average amount of emotions surrounding parenting, especially during the college planning years. When you add more emotion to the situation, it often results in some chaos. But what I regularly observe is that one or more members of the family feel lost, unvalued, and confused. So we’ve put this guide for blended families to navigate the college planning and application process.

The Role Of College Counselors

My job as college counselors is to help you – the parent – positively navigate this potentially volatile situation.

When we work with a student from a blended family, there are usually a lot of moving parts. The teenager needs to learn to work with their parents and stepparents. Everyone involved is human. With that realization, your student will see there are good and bad parts to each person.

The goal is always to treat each other with courtesy and respect. For the child to reach that level of respect for all parties, the parents need to model this behavior.

Replacing the all or nothing, this or that, zero or hero mentalities with flexible thinking is an important step in helping your child learn to take responsibility for their own growth and development.

We help students focus on who they are. This is a critical factor in our work with your student. Once that happens they can decide to show each parent love, courtesy, and respect.

Guide for Blended Families: Navigate The College Planning And Application Process

Because this is such a big topic to which so many families relate, we have gained extensive experience working with all types of families. And we at Bright Futures have developed tips for blended families navigating college planning & application.

Expect Conflict

The college planning process is an emotional time and conflict is going to happen. It is natural and happens in all families, whether or not parents are in a loving marriage.

Conflict appears in all areas, but especially during emotional times such as college planning. A stepparent may want to budget money away from their stepkid, a parent wants their child to follow in their career footsteps, or each parent is pushing for their child to go to their alma mater instead of the co-parent’s alma mater. The situations surrounding conflict are innumerable, but that is life.

We had a bright young man of a client whose father was an architect. He himself was interested in studying to also become an architect, but his mother had a tendency to be controlling. She also did not like the idea of her son following in her ex-husband’s footsteps.

This type of turmoil added to the already stressful time in this teenager’s life. He was on a journey of self-discovery, but afraid to voice his desires as to not upset his mother. One day, like an epiphany, he realized and vocalized that his mother is too controlling.

This ah-ha moment helped in his own self-awareness and gave him the courage to finally say what he wants. Of course, he still loves his mother very much. Due to the overbearing nature of their relationship, he also longed to be out from under her control.

Your child, our client, needs to be able to voice their goals and needs. Instead of letting the kids disappear behind the conflict, it’s important to keep the central goal focused on supporting the student.

When you sense conflict in the room, tell your teenager, “I’m here to support you.” This college-bound teenager will always be your child. Although they need to bloom in their own right, hearing that they are supported by you is empowering to their own growth.

In my experience as a college counselor, I often find it’s helpful to ask the stepparent to not attend meetings. It’s already a tense situation. The focus needs to be on the student, not on the parents!

Rarely do parents feel their presence is needed during my meetings with their students. However, I do give students homework that requires them to have authentic conversations with parents. If they need support to make that happen, I tell them to bring their parents to the next appointment.

Using a third party, like Bright Futures, ensures your student will remain at the center of the college planning process. Our job is to support your student.

Be Specific in Divorce Decree

Be specific in their divorce decree. Your future self will thank you. Some of our best clients are divorced parents who thought ahead and got everything in writing.

With a student-centered written document and civil contractual divorce decree limiting conflict and creating harmony, there is no room for confusion or miscommunication. It can even be easier than a married family!

If you and your ex are past the point of including this in the divorce decree, hammer out an agreement now. Identify who pays for what and when. Both parents want the best for their child, think about how you will accomplish this together.

Set A Budget

A lot of families say they don’t want their students to worry about money. If there’s always been conflict around money, do the work early to avoid that becoming a distraction from your child’s college application process and especially their college experience. It’s a sensitivity they’ve grown up with whether you intended for that or not. It’s not going to go away overnight. But you can put in the effort now to avoid triggering conflict down the road.

Different Options To Fit Your Budget

If there’s a concern about budget, there are options. Have your student start small by attending a local community college, take dual credit and Advanced Placement classes during high school, and transfer to an in-state public university.

I’m a big advocate for community colleges. I even started out at one, and now I have a doctorate. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t circumstances where that is not the best fit.

My first ever client, a brilliant student, lived with his mom and brother. His dad was out of the picture and told him he wouldn’t pay a penny for his college. For most people, hearing “Just attend the local community college” is fine. But for this highly-gifted student, it was harsh and unwise.

Two Ivy Leagues admitted this student. He chose to attend the school which gave him 5-years of all expenses paid education! Even a community college would have cost him more than his elite education did.

I also advocate for paid employment for students. In a blended family when a student earns money to pay for college or even incidentals, it empowers them. As I said, I grew up in a blended family and worked my way throughout high school and then into college.

It’s important for you as parents to decide on a budget for each party. What can mom do? Dad do? What can the student contribute?

Then come to the table and join the budgets together. We’ve worked in so many different situations. Oftentimes, we recommend the parent who makes less files for financial aid using their income. Then the parent who makes more pays the rest of the college fees.

If income is split down the middle, split the roles. There’s a lot of moving parts – tuition, housing, living expenses, etc. The bottom line is to have and stick to a budget.

Make Sure The Student Is Priority

Every parent needs to have their own child’s best interest at heart. Many divorced parents want to come to every session with their Independent Educational Consultant (IEC) to talk about college. If they haven’t come to a mutual agreement to keep the focus on their teenager, tension can build. As that tension builds, the student fades away from the sessions.

I often ask parents who revert back to their conflict with their former spouse to address their student.

Did you notice your student’s body language? 

Did you notice she stopped contributing to the conversation? 

Most of the time, everyone involved, including the student, didn’t even realize what was happening because it probably happens at home, too.

It is important for parents that find themselves in that situation, to say out loud that you’re making your student a priority. Your student needs to hear that. And it’s a reminder to everyone, including yourself, what the goal is.

It’s normal for every parent to want to be ‘the good parent’. Even if you no longer want to be married to each other, what is most beneficial to your child is to help your co-parent be the best parent they can be.

As we said earlier, this is a large topic with lots of information and nuances to cover – more than what we can include in a single blog. So, stay tuned for the next and final installment of this topic.

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