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The Best Conversation . . . Stopper: Managing College Conversations During the Holidays

Aunt Joanie is at it again. Curious and with a genuine desire to connect, it’s as if she meticulously prepared beforehand with 3x5 flashcards. And if she falters, she just might pull them out for a quick reference.

But it’s Thanksgiving. And you’re sick of talking about college.

I think so many teens can relate to this situation: the barrage of questions initiated by a well-intentioned Aunt Joanie clone. And it’s not just teens. All of us can probably conjure up a memory or two (or twenty) of awkward conversations and topics we’d really rather avoid broaching during family gatherings. These uncomfortable holiday conversations can make us, at best, cringe, and at worst, avoid interactions with relatives altogether.

Add to that the pressure and uncertainty that teens already feel about college admission, and it’s understandable that these types of conversations aren’t productive and can contribute to their overwhelm.

This year, consider being proactive: have a conversation with your teen about whether or not “the college conversation” is a conversation in which they want to engage with relatives during the holidays. If, like many teens, they’d rather share their thoughts on environmental sustainability, dive into their newfound obsession with botany, or explain the new skateboarding trick they’re perfecting, you can help them by alerting family members—before the gatherings—to steer clear of conversations about college.

And you can even go one step further. Help your teen to identify and practice ways to steer the conversation in a different direction in the event that Aunt Joanie “forgets” about the “no college talk” pact. Here are some ideas:

Set Expectations:

Teens can prepare beforehand, accepting the reality that college-related questions are likely to come up. When they are expecting that they will, and when they’re armed with strategies to side step them, they’ll feel more empowered from the outset.

Focus on Common Interests:

In conversations with relatives, teens can direct the conversation to discuss shared interests. Trading their reviews of Taylor Swift’s Eras Tour movie or chatting about a mutual fascination with World War II-era aircraft can keep conversations light and college free.

Talk About the Present:

Conversations that are present focused can, by definition, do wonders for eliminating future talk. Teens can convey excitement about the awesome things they’re doing right now: their group project in biology, their budding friendship with the new student in their class, or how much they are enjoying the shot put. When they can showcase just how pumped they are about their current experiences, references to future plans will be less likely.

Initiate Group Activities:

Games and activities that involve several family members are more likely to stifle the college talk, which tends to happen in one-on-one conversations. Consider urging your teen to show up to the gathering with a few group activity or game options in mind to render others (or themselves!) too busy to check on college plans.

Set Up a Support System:

Enlist the support of a sympathetic friend or family member who can intervene to change the subject should the word “college” be uttered. This trusted individual can prove a fantastic exit strategy.

I love the holidays. (Truly—we’ve already watched the entire Hallmark Channel lineup, and it’s only the second week in November.) I truly believe that, collectively, the holidays hold the potential for genuine connection and cherished memories with family. But to make them truly magical, some teens (and, really, so many of us) will need to practice healthy boundaries and prioritize mental well-being. Empower your teen with the knowledge that they get to steer conversations in ways that feel authentic and meaningful for them.

Happy Holidays! Wishing you conversations that bring you joy and fulfillment.


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