Parent forum: senior year survival strategies

Jessica Stewart, school psychologist

Jessica Stewart, school psychologist

Senior year brings heavy course loads, leadership roles in sports teams and activities, SATs, college applications, acceptances and rejections, exams, financial aid planning, college choices, AP exams and senior projects… then TLTI (“The Last Time I’ll…”) Syndrome, prom, baccalaureate and graduation. Seniors are shouldering so much responsibility while trying to savor this capstone year – it’s stressful for the whole family. The Parents’ Association devoted its December upper school meeting to “Senior year: plan for it, survive it, enjoy it.”  About 40 parents of current and future seniors gathered in Krause Gallery to hear from school psychologist Jessica Stewart, upper school head Debbie Phipps and dean of students Kevin Matson on what to expect and how to cope. “Survivor” parents with older kids shared ideas that worked for their families. 

Jess Stewart offered strategies to help parents build and nurture strong, open relationships with teens, anticipating stressors such as competition for college admissions; pressure and validation from inside and outside the family; recovering from rejection; age-appropriate separation and independence; and, with the end of high school, new beginnings. “The most important things are open communication and judgment-free support,” she said. “It’s critical for parents to begin to see their kids as independent young adults with their own goals and dreams—that may not be fully understood yet, and that’s okay! Engaging with our young adults in a way that values their right to define themselves and their dreams, and still be accepted and valued by the adults in their lives, gives them a platform from which to jump beyond themselves and return for grounding when they need it.”  

One of the parents attending offered these notes to summarize the highlights:

  • Choose a weekly time when you and your child can talk without distractions to establish or further develop a strong rapport. You want him to feel that you are the safe person he can come to when he feels stressed; show him he’s important enough to own this time on your schedule. Be his partner, advocate, or consultant, not his boss or interrogator. Try to communicate your observations without judgment.
  • Establish times when talking about college is off-limits.
  • Encourage your child to seek additional sounding boards: advisors, teachers, friends, friends’ parents.
  • Don’t be part of the problem – keep your own anxiety separate from your child’s, and find an outlet in your spouse, friends, exercise, etc.
  • Ask how you can help. Rather than a general “let me know if you want me to help you,” offer specific ways to support her process: being a sounding board, gathering materials, compiling deadlines, helping with travel plans. After a while, ask again. She may welcome your help with the unexpected.
  • Students face a relentless onslaught of questions and suggestions about college. Help yours have quick answers to neutralize that conversation. “I have a good plan.” Period. Or, “I’m casting a broad net so I’ll have a lot of choices.” Period.
  • Far ahead of colleges’ decision time, reinforce that denials are not a measure of worth. Let your language about “success” highlight that there are many roads to the life he wants.
  • Be flexible to allow your child to find her way and best timing. Not all people are ready for college at the same time. Working, developing a specific talent, or traveling first may be a better choice.
  • Freshman and sophomore families, start thinking and talking about colleges early – but not too early. Our freshmen cannot know who they’ll be and what they’ll want as seniors any more than they knew as fifth graders how they’d feel as freshmen. On the other hand, know your student: looking ahead may help her comfortably explore goals while the pressure is still low. College tours can be good conversation starters.
  • Finally, three parents recommended this article they read in November 29’s New York Times.
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