My Letter to College Admissions Officers

The recent college admissions scandal has generated lots of discussion. I chose to focus on the point that I know best as a mental health counselor- this process is taking a toll on students’ mental health.

Dear College Admissions Officers:

I write this letter from the perspective of someone who works with lots of high school students and sees how your acceptance process leaves students perplexed at best and suicidal at worst. I started undergrad 18 years ago and sure there were times when I felt frustrated during the process but I still got to be a teenager. In my downtime I’d listen to Jewel’s latest album, go to movies with my friends, and watch Dawson’s Creek. My admissions experience was quite a simple one because of the privilege I was afforded. So why am I concerned?

I am concerned for the mental health of our students. Do you know that the prefrontal cortex, responsible for decision making, planning, and judgement, starts developing at age twelve and isn’t fully formed until mid-late twenties? The excessive scheduling of sports, music lessons, and tutoring means either a still-functioning teenage brain has to manage that OR a parent steps in. When I was in high school, the “talk” was to find something you’re good at. I liked writing so I did that and I also liked helping people so I volunteered at the hospital after school. Now, it’s simply not good enough to have one thing you’re good at, you must have many. You must be popular but kind, athletic but well-rounded, make good grades but also volunteer and if you’ve already founded your own nonprofit or learned four languages then WOW! Is that picture that I just described really attainable? Where is there time in that picture for self-care? For the recommended 8-9 hours of sleep? For time to connect with friends and family that doesn’t involve a screen? 

I don’t know if you realize this but the competitive nature of college admissions means that students now associate asking for help with failure and struggling with a mental illness as a sign of weakness. When I missed school because I was sick, I’d call up my friend on her land line and asked her if I could I borrow the notes that I missed in class. During 11th grade, two of my closest friends tutored me in calculus because I was so confused. Do you think that same mentality happens now? Sometimes yes, but I think you would be shocked to hear that students don’t share their notes now because “tough luck that person was sick. They should’ve stuck it out like I did.” Can you imagine how it feels to be struggling with depression and feel totally alone because society tells you it’s a weakness? Don’t you think that everyone would benefit if there wasn’t this mentality of “taking away from me in order to give to someone else?” 

Not that you’ve asked but I’d love to offer you some possible essay topics for those applications of yours. 

·     What do you do for self-care?

·     What would you give up for someone else?

·     If a camera crew followed you around all day, would they see that you are the bully, the bullied, or a bystander? If you are a bystander, would they see you stand up for the kid who’s bullied or turn away and act as if nothing happened because it doesn’t affect you directly?

If you ever want to trade places for a day, give me a call. I think you’ll find the issues facing teens today very eye opening.

Teaching about Mistakes

I often have parents of young children ask me how to talk about mistakes in a way that is developmentally appropriate. I wanted to share two of my favorite children’s books.

First up- Beautiful Oops by Barney Saltzberg. This creative board book helps children see that a bent piece of paper can be something to celebrate because the bent corner is actually the beak of a penguin. It’s colorful design and three-dimensional aspect makes it a fun book to explore with children.

Then there’s The Book of Mistakes by Corinna Luyken which looks at how an artistic imperfection can spark inspiration. It’s beautifully illustrated and will resonate with any child (or parent) who has experienced a meltdown when drawing. “I didn’t want that circle to look that way,” can lead to tears but Luyken helps kids understand that the circle can be easily turned into something different.

And finally a great read for supportive adults is The Gift of Failure by Jessica Lahey. Her book encourages parents to let their children experience failure so then they can problem solve for themselves solutions. Here’s an article about Lahey’s book written by Julie Lythcott-Haims author of How to Raise an Adult:

An Attitude of Gratitude

Having “an attitude of gratitude” is a theme in the Girls on the Run curriculum. I have the wonderful opportunity to serve on the Board of the local Girls on the Run chapter. There are many themes throughout the Girls on the Run curriculum that I think can be applied to adults, children, and teens but certainly an attitude of gratitude is one of them.

A few years ago, I began a Gratitude Jar that I made myself using some ribbon, a mason jar, and cut-up pieces of card stock. Each day I wrote down one thing I was grateful for. One of the best aspects of this practice is seeing the jar filled with many things; some of them were repeated but after 6 months I opened the jar and went through everything I felt grateful for. Some of the tiny cards brought up memories that I had forgotten- a sunny day in February. I encourage you to try it out as a family; your children can even help in decorating the jar. It can become a bedtime ritual or a dinner conversation.

One of the many things that I’m grateful for is my work with children and adolescents. I’m grateful for the families who seek out my help and expertise and I’m grateful for the children and adolescents who trust me and open up to me. My work as a counselor is truly rewarding and I’m grateful for the opportunity to work with so many families over the years and in the future too.

Let us express gratitude to each other in whatever way feels most authentic.

Written by Kathleen Goodman

Written by Kathleen Goodman

What is Self-Compassion?

There’s this misconception that exists lumping self-esteem and self-compassion as one in the same. Self-esteem is often labeled as how we think about ourselves (often in comparison to others) and self-compassion is different; it’s how we treat ourselves. We might feel good about ourselves but what happens when you make a mistake? Think about a lofty goal you set for yourself recently. Did you reach it? If not, what was the language you used in your head? How did you treat yourself? For example, let’s say you’re a runner and your goal was to beat your time on an upcoming race. Race day comes and you don’t beat your time; in fact, it’s slower than you’ve ever run. In that moment, the wheel of negative thoughts might be circling in your head: “I failed,” “I knew I couldn’t do it,” “I’m too old/slow/fat, etc.”

Recently I listened to this TedTalk by Kristin Neff: where she talks about the three core components to self-compassion. Those components are self-kindness, common humanity, and mindfulness. When I think about self-compassion for myself and for the adolescents I work with this idea of common humanity really stands out. Common humanity is essentially the principle of knowing you are not alone. You are not the only one with anxiety, depression, frustration, hurt, disappointment.

In stark contrast, self-criticism does two things (among others). First, self-criticism releases high levels of cortisol to make you feel stressed and second, self-criticism leads to isolation. Self-criticism makes you believe that you don’t deserve to be around others and thus does the opposite of what is most needed in that moment. Self-criticism fuels one of the most vulnerable human emotions which is shame.

So what can be done to help our children and ourselves? I think the first step is to think about self-kindness being the words you would use to talk to a close friend. If your friend didn’t beat her goal time in the race, would you say to her “I knew you couldn’t do it.” No you wouldn’t. You’d probably sense her feelings of disappointment and might say something along these lines, “It sounds like you’re feeling disappointed about your time but think about all the ways you prioritized your training runs and what an accomplishment that was.”

Particularly for adolescents who developmentally are so focused on peer relations, teaching self-kindness through the mindset of “what would you tell a friend” can have a huge impact in shifting their negative thoughts away from self-criticism and more towards self-compassion. Rachel Simmons offers some valuable insights about how teaching self-compassion can help stressed out teens in her article here:

Know of a teen struggling with self-criticism? I’d be happy to help!

Written by Kathleen Goodman

Written by Kathleen Goodman

Combatting Perfectionism

Let’s talk for a moment about perfectionism and the rise of perfectionism in our society today. What exactly is perfectionism? The simplest definition is the fear of making mistakes or the belief that making mistakes is unacceptable. Perfectionists also tend to be procrastinators- why is that you ask? Well if you have to make sure it’s perfect, then you might avoid the task altogether.

Having spent ten years in a school, I heard over and over again students who would re-write essays two, three times before turning it in because they had to make sure it was perfect. These students turned assignments in late because their first one or two attempts weren’t good enough. This example also demonstrates how perfectionists internalize feedback and how a grade less than an A signals a value judgement made about them. More often than not, if a perfectionist receives a “C” on an assignment, she’ll say “I’m not smart” or “I’ll never succeed” whereas a healthy response to receiving a “C” would say “I should ask my teacher where I could improve for the next time.”

What I’ve noticed over the years is that anxiety and perfectionism go hand in hand. A perfectionist has “what if” statements that control his mind. “What if I fail this class?” “What if I fail all my classes?” “What if I don’t graduate?” “What if I don’t get into college?” These thought processes create a spiraling effect where a student goes from fearing failing a test to that one test suddenly affecting the rest of his life.

So how can we as educators and parents help?

  • First, take a moment to notice in yourself if you are okay with making mistakes. When you make a mistake at home or at work, how do you handle it? Do you internalize it and allow it to make a value judgement? Model for yourself and for your children that making mistakes is okay. This is HARD work especially in a society that celebrates curated social media profiles and says, “Look everyone else is doing it so much better/easier/faster.”

  • Second, poke holes in the “all or nothing” thinking. If your child says, “if I fail this test I’ll never get into college,” poke holes in those fear statements. “I’m hearing you say that you are afraid this one test will affect your future and I’m wondering about the other assessments in your class that provide opportunities for you to show your knowledge in other ways.” You might also offer a moment of perspective taking and ask, “can you think of a time when you were afraid to take a risk? how did that work out for you?”

  • Third, adopt a growth mindset. Carol Dweck’s work talks about fixed versus growth mindset. What is a fixed mindset? Perfectionism is a fixed mindset. A growth mindset says, “this feedback will help me improve in the future” rather than “mistakes are to be feared.” Growth mindset encourages us to take feedback and apply it to what was presented/turned in versus internalizing feedback as a judgement on ourselves.

Interested in learning more about how changing thought patterns can affect perfectionism? I’d be happy to help!

Written by Kathleen Goodman

Written by Kathleen Goodman

Mental Health Education

Written by Kathleen Goodman

Written by Kathleen Goodman

There was quite a buzz going around about ABC’s new drama “A Million Little Things” so I decided to watch it Wednesday night. It was being applauded for raising the issue of suicide to the surface; however, in my opinion, much like “13 Reasons Why” it was dramatized for television and fell short of educating the audience on the reality of suicide.

The main character dies by suicide within the first ten minutes and the rest of the episode finds his friends and family asking “why would he do this? he had everything.” That comment- “he had everything” makes me think of some of the public response’s in the aftermath of the June suicides of Anthony Bourdain and Kate Spade. Depression doesn’t discriminate; a person can have fame, money, career, etc. and be depressed. Based solely upon the previews of the season, it seems like this show will have the characters “looking” for some reason that caused Jon to die by suicide which again shifts the focus to “solving a mystery” rather than elevating the severity of depression.

One of the most unhelpful aspects of the show is that the character, Jon, who died by suicide has this phrase “everything happens for a reason.” This phrase is repeated throughout the first episode. How many of you in response to a traumatic event (death, cancer diagnosis, divorce) had the phrase “everything happens for a reason” said to you? How did that you make you feel? To tie back to a previous post about empathy vs. sympathy, rarely can words help someone feel better. It’s a connection and acknowledging their pain that can help them feel better. If someone has lost a loved one, instead of saying “the sun comes out tomorrow” or “everything happens for a reason,” a better, empathetic response is “I don’t even know what to say right now but I’m here if you need to talk.”

The first episode also shows once again the shame and stigma associated with depression and suicide in the character of Rome, whom the audience sees stuffing pills in his mouth right as he gets a call about Jon’s death. As the episode goes on, Rome opens up about his suicide attempt and yet what I saw in him was shame and this idea that there’s something “wrong” with him. Instead of having Hollywood dramatize suicide in shows like this or “13 Reasons Why” let’s educate ourselves and our teens on mental health.

Did you know that suicide is the second leading cause of death for teens and young adults ages 15-24? It’s second behind car accidents. This summer, New York state became the first state to require mental health education in all of its health curricula. You can read more about that here: You’ll also see from the article that Virginia has mandated mental health be addressed in two grades- 9th and 10th. Introducing mental health education allows children and teens to understand that having depression or anxiety doesn’t mean there’s something “wrong” with you. It also allows adolescents the opportunity to learn about warning signs and to recognize when a peer might be struggling and how to get help.

National Suicide Prevention Hotline: 1-800-273-TALK

Learning to Play Again

Play is a child’s natural mode of expression. Think back to when you were a child- how did you play? Perhaps there was a creek in your backyard or you built a fort with kids in your neighborhood? For me, play meant dressing up my dog and cat and in the summer catching lightening bugs. I asked a high school student once, “when was the last time you played?” She looked at me like I had three heads. “What do you mean ‘play’ she asked? She then went on to respond that she “plays” with her phone and “plays” sports.

When I think of play, I think of unstructured time and yet I wonder where does that actually exist for students nowadays? Students’ days are highly structured from the time they wake up to the time they go to sleep. Their days are spent at school, in clubs, at sports, perhaps lessons or tutoring, homework, on social media, worrying about school/friends, etc. I know of educators who actually have played a student for a day meaning that they’ve woken up, done the commute, run through a whole day of classes, then gone to sports practice before coming home to piles of homework. Those educators that “played” students for a day said it was one of the most exhausting experiences they’ve ever been through.

I came across an article about one school in Minnesota that is doing something really neat. LEAP is an hour during the school day when students choose how to spend their time. Perhaps take a nap, lift weights, or play drums; either way Centennial High School in Circle Pines, MN is giving students a chance to have unstructured time OR if they want more structure, then they get to create it for themselves. Read more here:

Written by Kathleen Goodman

Written by Kathleen Goodman

Back-to-School Tips

It’s that time of year- back to school! You can always tell when the stores and commercials are filled with advertisements for lunch boxes, backpacks, and school supplies. Going back to school can be met with both worry and excitement from students AND parents. Below are some helpful tips:

At Home

·     At least one week before school starts, adjust wake times to be consistent with school. This is particularly important for older students whose summer wake time is far later than for school.

·     Find a place where all school items will be housed. For example, is there a crate by the backdoor where your child can put her backpack, gym bag, and violin case so she knows where to find it each morning?

·     Do a trial run of what a typical school morning looks like. This is important for both you and your child to figure out how much time is needed. If your child walks to the bus stop, practice doing that. If your teenager is driving to school, practice the route.

·     Display a monthly calendar that lists various events. If you have younger students, you’ll most likely make note of things like Back to School Night or PTA meetings. If you have older students, coach them to add important events to the calendar like games, practices, etc. As students get older it’s also important to coach them to consult the family calendar when there are events that might mean they need to manage their homework load. For example, your 10th grader has a chemistry test on Thursday but your family is celebrating Grandma’s 80th on Wednesday night. That is an important lesson for your student to learn he’ll need to do more studying earlier in the week and not rely solely on the night before.

At School

·     For younger children who might experience separation anxiety, talk ahead of time with the classroom teacher. Most of the time the initial separation worries can be quickly solved if the student has a morning routine when she walks into the classroom. If there is a stuffed animal or other soothing object (photo, book, etc.) be sure to let the teacher know.

·     Do a practice run. Many schools, particularly elementary schools, give students the opportunity to meet their teachers and see their rooms ahead of time. Make sure to include other areas of interest as well. When the bus drops off your child where does he go? If you pick up your child, where should she meet you? What does the art room, library, and gym look like?

·     For older students, accompanying them on a tour may be the last thing they want but they might have some worries if new to their school. If their locker has a combination lock, practice using one at home. If there are opportunities to get involved before school starts, encourage that. Often high school sports practices and even some drama productions start weeks ahead of time. For older students, it’s more about connection. 

When to Worry

·     Whether it’s starting school or a new job, it can take a while to adjust. Help model patience for your child. There will be good days and bad days. When phone calls home or tearful mornings become the norm rather than the exception, it might be time to seek additional support.

·     If you don’t hear your child bring up other kids in their class, probe a little further by asking: “tell me what lunch looks like” or “who do you sit beside in art class?” It’s important for students to find peer connections.

Where to Go for Help

·     Start with the source- your child. You might say, “Each year you seem excited for school and it’s normal to feel nervous but this year I actually observe you feeling scared. Tell me more about that.”

·     Consult with your child’s teacher, especially if your child has one primary teacher. You are the expert on your child but the teacher is the expert on kindergartners and might reaffirm that your child’s behavior is totally normal and developmentally appropriate.

·     Collaborate with your child’s school counselor or outside mental health counselor if there are underlying social-emotional concerns.

Interested in counseling services for your child? I can help! I've worked with lots of students around transitions particularly the middle to high school and high school to college transitions.

Written by Kathleen Goodman

Written by Kathleen Goodman

Is your teenager college-ready?

I read an article in the New York Times recently about helping teenagers be college-ready. Often we focus so much on the academic readiness part that we forget about the emotional readiness. What is emotional readiness? There are many answers to this question but let me provide a few scenarios for you.

Scenario #1: Your son overslept and showed up late for his midterm economics exam. The classroom door was locked and his professor refused to let him in. Your son decided to show up at the professor's office hours the next morning and offer an explanation. Whether or not, he was able to take the exam or ended up with a zero is beside the point. The point of this story is that your son dealt with the situation on his own and showed maturity in being ready to accept the consequence of a zero on his exam for showing up late. He might adjust his study habits for the future and go to bed earlier or set multiple alarms. This is an example of someone who is emotionally ready for college. Chances are you have coached your son throughout his years in school helping him to solve problems himself and deal with consequences. 

How would this scenario look if your son never dealt with problems on his own because mistakes, setbacks, etc. were always solved by someone else? There is a very poignant line in the article which says, "a C- student who manages his own academic life has a better chance of succeeding in college than A/B student who requires parental oversight." Chances are the C- student is figuring out what study strategies work and don't work and learning to deal with consequences as they come. Yes there are many A/B students out there who manage their academic lives beautifully and yet, there are also many A/B students who require external motivation and reminders. What happens in college when there aren't those external motivators and reminders?

Another aspect of emotional readiness that I'd like to add is the ability to develop healthy coping skills. Homesickness, roommate struggles, loneliness, stress, etc. are all normal feelings. How will your student deal with those feelings? Yes, it's great if she calls home but is she also able to enlist a network of support on campus such as her friend group, RA, or counseling center? There are certainly unhealthy ways of dealing with difficult feelings but the emotionally ready student is able to tap into healthy coping skills such as exercise, talking with a friend, listening to music, reading a magazine, throwing a frisbee on the quad, watching a movie, etc. 

The link to the article mentioned earlier is here:

And if you're in the Seattle area, I'm co-hosting a free College Planning 101 workshop on Tuesday August 14. More info can be found here:

Written by Kathleen Goodman

Written by Kathleen Goodman

Summer Reading Recommendation #4

How to Raise an Adult by Julie Lythcott-Haims has caught the attention of educators and parents from across the country. Drawing upon her experience as dean of freshmen at Stanford University, she provides insights from both an academic and parental perspective. I could highlight an excerpt from each of her chapters that resonates with me and yet, I'd like to focus on just one- "Have a Wider Mind-Set about Colleges." 

What makes the college admissions process less stressful? Well, I've asked this question to some really experienced college counselors out there and they've all said "a college list is best when it fits you." Lycott-Haims quotes a well-known educator in the college counseling profession who said, "he is concerned by a growing trend among his highly able seniors to make the college process into a game to be won rather than a match to be made." 

I like to use a visualization strategy with some of my students who are struggling with finding a college of best fit. Here it goes: Close your eyes and imagine yourself walking through campus on a Wednesday morning. What does your campus look like? Is it filled with more people than trees or the opposite? Do you hear sounds of birds or sounds of sirens? When you enter your first class that morning, what does the room look like? Is there a round discussion table? A giant lecture hall? When you are done with classes for the day, how do you unwind? Do you grab coffee at a nearby cafe with a friend? Hit the trail to run? Grab a surf board? Later that night, you're feeling down and want to talk to your family. Do you call them? FaceTime with them? Drive over and see them? Do you reach out to your roommate or another friend on your hall instead because of the time difference?

I cannot assess the reliability or validity for my visualization exercise and yet it gets students to think. In particular, the part about their classroom really gets the wheels turning. For some students, they've been used to class sizes of 15 since kindergarten and if the idea of a 300+ lecture hall sounds great, well then some really large universities might provide a nice change of pace. However, if that sounds terrifying looking at smaller schools might be a more realistic route. 

Looking for more tips on finding the right college fit? Check out my free upcoming workshop:

Written by Kathleen Goodman

Written by Kathleen Goodman