Will My Child With Chronic Pain/Health Issues Ever Be Able To Go To College?

Brought to you by Creative Healing for Youth in Pain's Parenting Blog

Samantha Levy, PhD
July 28, 2022 / 3 mins read

Many parents who have children with chronic pain and other health issues wonder if their child will be able to go to college. This is Part 1 of a two-part series that discusses managing expectations, helping your child choose the right college, and how to actually enjoy the college application process.

You’ve been taking care of your child/teen for many years, and it has been a struggle because of the physical ailments. Now, you’re thinking about college years coming up and wondering how it will be possible. If your child is in high school, there are several things you can do to get ready ahead of time for college.

Keep your Expectations in Check

Most kids and teens with chronic pain are good students who tend towards perfectionism and people-pleasing. They are also typically very perceptive and sensitive.

That means they usually pick up on your cues about what you hope for them with regard to college. Even if you don’t see it, they are likely putting a lot of pressure on themselves to fulfill both their own expectations of themselves and the expectations they feel you have of them. The stress of meeting those goals increases pain, fatigue, dizziness, and any other symptoms your child is facing.

Remember, there are over 3,000 colleges in the U.S., and all of them provide an excellent education for those who seek it out. If your child tends to get stressed and symptomatic from academic pressure, then a high-pressure college -- even if your child can technically get in -- is not going to be the right fit.

It is best to view college for your child as a place to grow personally, explore areas of interest, and become more independent. This will happen in the environment that best meets your child’s needs, not in the highest status college to which your child can be admitted. Your child’s physical and mental health is more important than the status of the school attended. So, look for the right fit in areas such as:

  • What is the culture of the school? Competitive, collaborative, Greek life, values?
  • What are the students like? Artsy, sporty, diverse, partiers, nerdy?
  • Is it small enough to get the support your child might need?
  • How far away is it? Some kids with pain do well going far enough away that they are not tempted to come home on weekends, but close enough that they can have parents come for a visit or go home briefly, if needed.
  • Does the college have the major your child is interested in?
  • If finances are a consideration, where can your child most likely receive a scholarship? This will most likely happen at a school that is easier for your child to get into.
  • Is the school the ideal size?
  • Is it a closed campus or city school? Is there a town nearby? Are there doctors and other practitioners your child might need in a nearby location?

“We cannot direct the wind, but we can adjust the sails”

Part of letting go of expectations is also accepting that your child’s path may not go at the speed or direction you anticipated before your child’s chronic medical issues began. But I can say from years of experience that just because there are changes, it doesn’t mean your child will not get from point A to point B. There just might be a windier road than expected.

Some teens with pain have a difficult time with high school schedules and choose to finish their high school credits by taking community college courses. Some will need five years to graduate from high school.

Other teens graduate from high school and then take a gap year to apply to college and volunteer or work. This gap year can help avoid the stress of simultaneously completing senior year of high school and college applications. Some students who decide to take time off choose to attend community college for one to two years while they work on their health and complete college applications for a four-year institution.

All of these options -- and any others that work for your teen -- are fine!

Taking an extra year (or two or three) will not impact their lives in the long run. If anything, it is much better than going to college before being ready or risking an increase in their symptoms due to the stress of trying to stay on an arbitrary, predetermined schedule.

In fact, occasionally people start college and then hit a rough patch. They need to take a medical leave to get treatment, and then go back to college when ready. This is also fine, if necessary. Taking the extra time to graduate is better than not going at all.

Andy was a client of mine with back pain, IBS, anxiety, and depression. He had a difficult time in school because, along with his physical issues, he also had learning disabilities. He was extremely bright, but his limitations made school difficult for him. He took longer to complete high school, sometimes going in person and sometimes completing courses online.

After high school, he worked and went to practitioners to help with his symptoms. Andy began to feel increasingly uncomfortable about the idea of going to college at an older age. He felt that he would stand out from the other freshman, most of whom would be two to three years younger than him.

I encouraged him to apply anyway and go to college. When he did eventually go, he agreed that being older than the other students didn’t matter. Although he was already very mature for his age, he sought out equally mature friends.

Make the College Applications Process Enjoyable

Yes, I said enjoyable! And I really mean it!

Before our culture became so intent on using college admissions for status, it was a much less stressful process. I am aware of how difficult it is to get into colleges now, compared to our generation. However, the goal for your teen with chronic pain is to find a college that is not going to be stressful to get into or to attend. The goal is to find the right fit.

So, get books such as the Fiske and/or Princeton Review guides to colleges or check them out online (Google “Fiske Interactive” and/or go to www.princetonreview.com). Spend some quality, casual time with your teen looking through them. Think of it as sightseeing -- nothing stressful about looking at the sites. Look at them with curiosity and excitement.

Check out the websites of the schools themselves, and if you can, visit schools in person, especially when students are on campus. Start to get a sense of which schools seem like a good fit as far as the students, values, or programs. Consider looking more closely at some schools you have never heard of that are the right size, have good support programs, and give a lot of scholarship money.

Do not approach it with the bias of which school has the highest status. If you want your child to actually graduate from college, then the fit is going to be the ticket to success. Use the mantra, “I will not give in to the social pressures of the college application process.”

College will Probably be Easier than High School!

Some teens who have struggled in high school really blossom in college. The college schedule is much better suited for kids with pain. They can choose classes that don’t start early in the morning, and they have built-in breaks throughout the day. The college schedule feels less daunting than the 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. daily grind of high school.

For teens who are isolated because of their pain or who are introverted, the college setting is ideal because peers are right there all of the time. They need not expend too much energy figuring out plans because there are always people around, as well as a multitude of clubs and on-campus activities.

Sandy was a quiet, introverted high school student. She had a group of friends, but she did not often reach out to make plans. She was a homebody, and although she enjoyed spending time with friends, she did not like parties or large gatherings.

However, in college, Sandy absolutely blossomed. She was in a group text with students in her dorm, so she was able to see when others were going to the dining hall. She sometimes studied in the common room so that she wouldn't be too isolated in her room. She joined clubs where she met other like-minded students. She found other students who preferred to hang out in the dorm or go to a movie instead of a party. She no longer had to ask her parents for rides or coordinate plans because her friends were right there!

Academically, college can be easier than high school, too. Many kids with chronic pain have learning disabilities. For example, they may be very good writers, but struggle with math. In high school, students are required to excel in every subject area, but in college, there are more flexible requirements.

Some colleges have more general education requirements than others, so that is also something to consider. For example, one of my own daughters struggles with learning languages, so she chose a college with no language requirement.

Consider Letting your Teen be the Big Fish in the Little Pond

Chances are that your teen works very hard and stresses a lot about school work. Stress exacerbates pain. Why not encourage your teen to go to a college that is a tier “below” where he could theoretically get in and, instead, feel less stressed and more confident in college? If your teen goes to a “reach” school, the other students will also have been at the top of their classes, and the feeling of competition will be stronger.

Major tech companies report that they take many more young workers from public schools where they have excelled, over prestigious private schools where they may be a little fish in a big pond.

Young people with chronic pain can get into college and thrive there, but choosing the right college is crucial to their success.

Dr. Samantha Levy, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist who received her Ph.D. from Georgia State University in the Child and Family specialty track. During her clinical, child centered internship at UCLA, she became involved with the Pediatric Pain Program. Subsequently, she obtained her postdoctoral training there. Depending on the specific situation, Dr. Levy works either with whole families, individual children/teens, or parents. She employs an array of psychological orientations (e.g. CBT, play therapy, mindfulness, hypnotherapy, ACT, IFS), to help the children/teens with their pain and any accompanying emotional issues. She helps the families understand the connection between the physical pain and emotional difficulties (mind/body connection). She teaches parenting skills and helps parents facilitate their child’s difficult, courageous journey back to functioning more fully in the world again. Dr. Levy runs the CHYP monthly open parent group and the CHYP small group parent groups.