By Eric Nelson, Director of Counseling and Psychological Services Nuancing the Narrative: Helping Young Adults Manage the Stories They Tell Themselves

Eric Nelson

We all have different storylines or narratives in our lives that influence our emotions, thinking, decisions and daily experiences. We use these narratives to explain the difficulty of being human. Some of those storylines can provide stability in a seemingly uncertain and instable world: “I’ve been through difficulty before,” or “God is present with us in suffering.” We also have storylines that can worsen our circumstances, which can arise in moments of struggle: “What’s wrong with me!” or “I just don’t fit here.”

In the dynamic pressures that face current college students, parents can play a critical role in nuancing the problematic storylines that result from the complicated world our kids have grown up in. Sometimes parents can help with the problematic narratives, and sometimes parents inadvertently strengthen messages that could be harmful. Below are some examples of the common problematic thought processes we see in college students with suggestions for ways to nuance the narrative. 

“Everyone has it all together.”  Whether it’s scrolling social media or strolling on a college campus, there’s a fallacy that everyone has their life planned out except you. This narrative is best nuanced with: “No one has it all it together (and it’s better not to).” This is the time in life to explore rather than settle. 

“I must be exceptional in everything.” This is impossible in the balance of life, and the pressure to achieve this contributes to high stress and anxiety. Instead: “I can excel in my strengths and make space for the things I’m still developing in.” 

“I can’t fail.” In a season of life with tremendous growth and learning, the assertion that failure is off the table can create anxiety and lead to avoiding challenges. Failure can be one of the best teachers in college. In contrast, try: “I will fail at times and am better for it.”

“If I’m not happy, I’m defective.” Growth involves pain, and college is one of the most formative seasons in life. Even so, college students (and adults as well) avoid the experience of pain at all costs. College involves a range of emotions, and the more we make space for them to occur, the better we’ll be at not letting them control us. “I will experience a range of emotions in college, and that’s all a part of growth, even though it’s hard at times.”     

As a parent, keep the channels of communication open with your young adults. When your student comes to you with difficulty, first hear, listen and reflect on the struggle. Do not jump in with another storyline to counter the struggle they may be experiencing. Otherwise they may feel you just don’t get it. People tend not to respond well to “God’s got a plan” when voicing a difficult experience. Perhaps later, wonder with them about what they believe about themselves, including their expectations, or what stories they believe about themselves or others. Lastly, be mindful of the ways we as parents, even with good intentions, emphasize the narratives that contribute to our young adult’s anxiety and stress.