At the finish line

Senior year is perilous for both students and parents



It is typical for me to begin to see more high-schoolers in the late summer and fall of their senior year, and their parents. Senior year is a time of anxiety and loss that surrounds the inevitable next step for many youth — college.

High school seniors are pressured with a timeline that is often painstakingly anxiety-ridden, overwhelming and laced with feelings of fear, hope and ambiguity. They are sprinting to the finish line with applications, final projects and college essays. The pressure around which college to attend and how it will be paid for often times leads to 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. Seniors are on the go during the fall of their last year, and many times this pressure to perform bleeds over into their family life.

Parents often get frustrated with their child’s procrastination, their “distance” from normal family routine and the behavior and mood of their almost adult. Parents report that they try to help their kid, but they are often pushed away or ignored. As the anxiety of the senior increases, parents find themselves taking on not only their kid’s anxiety but their feelings of hope, fear and ambiguity.

This time period is certainly a recipe for disaster, but it doesn’t have to be.

With seniors, I talk about organization, structuring time and working through feelings of ambiguity. Not knowing what is going to happen never gets easier, but there are ways to cope with these gray areas. I also talk to kids about the realities of their hopes and dreams. Many kids by this time have spoken to college counselors so they understand the process, but I help them get comfortable by aiding them in developing coping skills.

With parents, I focus on one issue — loss. I often find parents are not thinking about the big elephant in the room, and that is that their child is about to embark on a journey away from them. At this time parents tend to lean out or lean in too much with controlling or avoidant behaviors.

I talk to parents about their feelings around the process. I point out the behaviors that can push or pull their kids away. I talk about patience, and allowing their child to go through the process while they display a sense of calm and acceptance. I 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 time. Although how they show need might be off-putting or downright rejecting, remember that they are about to confront a huge change. In tackling the beginning of their next phase of life, seniors need to know that their parents are there, no matter what, and they are ready to catch them if they fall or watch as they fly.    

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

Making sleep a priority

Adequate sleep time is critical for adolescents

The push and pull of letting go

Managing the many emotions you will have when your child leaves home

Transitioning from teen to adult

How to navigate the changes ahead

Supporting gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered teens

Support for youth revealing their sexual orientation is critical
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