How to manage the stress and emotions of senior year and applying to college

It is typical for me to see more high-schoolers in the later part of summer and fall of their senior year, as well as their parents. Senior year is a time of intense anxiety and loss, surrounding an inevitable next step for many youth — college.      

High school seniors are pressured by a timeline that is often anxiety-ridden and overwhelming. They are sprinting to the finish line with applications, final high school projects, and the dreaded college essay that is rewritten at least 100 times. In addition, the concerns around which college to attend and how to pay for it can create an environment fraught with sleepless nights.

College has become a professional sport for high school seniors — desperate to find the right college for their future professional life and the right fit that will allow them to enjoy a social life that will be engaging, accepting and fun. Seniors are constantly on the go during the fall of their last year, and many times this pressure bleeds over into their family life.

Parents get frustrated by their child’s procrastination and ”distance” from the normal family routine, as well as the overall behavior and mood of their “almost adult” at home. Parents say they try to help, but they are often pushed away or ignored. As the anxiety of their high school senior increases, parents take on not only their kid’s anxiety, but also their feelings of hope and fear. Oh yes, this time period is certainly a recipe for disaster. But it doesn’t have to be.

With seniors, I talk a lot about organization, structuring time and working through feelings of ambiguity. Let’s face it, not knowing what is going to happen isn't easy, but we can find ways to cope with these gray areas. I also talk to kids about the realities of their dreams. Many kids have spoken to several college counselors so they understand the process. But I help them get more comfortable with what might happen by developing coping skills they will use their entire life. 

With parents, I focus on one primary issue – loss. Parents sometimes don't think about the huge elephant in the room; that their kid is about to embark on a journey away from them. I focus on this issue because I often see that instead of processing their feelings, parents push them down to avoid dealing with them. Parents may lean out or lean in too much with controlling or avoidant behaviors because the thought of this new journey is exciting yet painful. 

I talk to parents about their fears and feelings of loss around their child leaving and I point out the behaviors that can actually push their kids away. I talk about patience and allowing their child to go through the process while they show a sense of calm and acceptance. I also talk about communication and not feeding into their child’s anxiety by engaging in negative discourse or authoritative edicts. 

Seniors need their parents more than ever during this process. How they show it might be off-putting, but it is important to remember they are about to confront a huge change. While tackling the beginning of their next phase of life, seniors need their parents to quietly sit next to them, ready for them to talk or lean in on, no matter how they behave. 

Tracey Tucker is Executive Director of New Heights: Adventures for Teens and a licensed mental health counselor at Tradeport Counseling Associates in Portsmouth.

More Parenting in the Moment columns by Tracey Tucker

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