Keys for surviving junior/senior year stress

Bake them muffins?

By Jessica Stewart, school psychologist

As if parenting hasn’t been challenging enough at times already, welcome to late adolescence and Junior/Senior years of high school!  There are so many things happening within and around your children that are developmentally normal, though no less stressful (to name a few): 

  • Spending less time with family and more with friends
  • Finding their passion for what motivates them;
  • Feeling lost or confused if they DON’T yet know what they want;
  • Balancing (and often struggling with) the emotions tied to all the changes, excitement, losses, and the uncertainties ahead;
  • The desire (often but not always) for more independence and “freedom”;
  • And the ability to more often actually BE more independent—translation: needing you less often.

With so many factors impacting your kids, there are also so many jrsandsrsaffecting you as parents (to name a few):

  • Understanding and tolerating all of THEIR challenges;
  • Understanding and managing all of your own feelings about this time and role as parent;
  • Your emotions (anxiety, sadness, relief, joy, jealousy, inadequacy, regret, loss…it’s all fair game!);
  • And knowing how to walk what I call the impossible, narrow line of the parenting paradox—the balance between doing and not doing, too much and too little, to get it “right.” Phew, good luck with that!
  • …oh, and your OWN lives, challenges, issues, joys, friendships, work, etc. as individual humans, yourselves.

That makes for a lot in the mix when talking about the stress in the air!  Here are a few thoughts, suggestions, and tidbits to think about that may just help you be more helpful to your child and survive—together—with your relationship intact—the conclusion of high school and “what’s next!?” process:

  • What is your biggest asset right now? Your relationship with your child!  Does it already include trust? Reliability? Humor? Openness? Safety? Acceptance? Like? Love? Judgment-free support?  Your relationship is the constant in all that is changing and will be what remains as they form their own adult lives.
  • Decide on a weekly “date” time, when you and your child can talk, be together without distractions and establish [or further develop] a good rapport. You want your child to feel that you are the safe person they can come to when they feel stressed and consistently showing they are important enough to have on your “schedule” helps with this.
  • Be their partner, advocate, or consultant, not their boss or interrogator. Try to communicate your observations, without judgment.
  • Let them stay in the driver’s seat—even if they want to jump out of the car! Supporting rarely means doing for
  • Limit the times that you talk about college stuff—especially try to establish times when it is off limits to do so. Ideally: have a set “business meeting” each week (just as you have the “relationship maintenance meeting.”
  • Encourage your child to seek out advice through other community members, too: advisors, teachers, friends, friends’ parents. It’s good to have different sounding boards (even though we want to be “everything” to our child).
  • You will need: confidants of your own, advice from experts, partnership from other adults, time away from the role as “parent,” humility to admit what you don’t know, tolerance and patience to wait out moments of madness (that can distract us from staying on course!), trust in your child, a sense of humor, and perspective on the future.
  • Make sure you’re not part of the problem—keep your anxiety separate from your child’s, as they have so much already! (Parents need outlets, too: spouses, friends, exercise, etc.)
  • Ask your child how you can help. You may need to offer specific ways you can (rather than a general “let me know if you want me to help you”), such as: a sounding board while THEY talk through career path options, materials gatherer, master calendar manager, and travel planner/financial backer (with real information about limitations, so they can realistically map out their process ahead). After a while, ask again.
  • Sometimes, as parents, no matter what you do or say we can’t win: our kids are so stressed, emotional, and irrational that they are mad when we do nothing and they are alone in the angst, but they can’t ask for help or even accept it. In those times when our parent instinct is to DO SOMETHING, just fill the house with the smell of something yummy and, without words, slowly approach and deliver a treat…you just delivered support, comfort, unconditional love, company, and energy in that muffin!
  • Standardized testing: With guidance from your College Counseling staff, help your child choose the best timing for taking SATs/SAT IIs/ACTs, and keep the meaning of these tests and what they are for in perspective.  Be careful what message you are sending if you are enlisting a “test tutor” or additional “college counselor.” Definitely reinforce that even some schools recognize these may not fully capture your child’s potential (as they are optional at more and more schools!).
  • Encourage that the common application and essay be written before school starts in September. Help your child plan for the timing and work of their additional various essays, as they will need to stagger the work in with their coursework, activities, etc.
  • Again: Be the consultant, not the taskmaster. It is their process because it is their end-goal, even if it is a goal you may not have or choose for them.
  • Students face a relentless onslaught of questions and suggestions about college. Choose your timing carefully and realize that there are lots of times that it would not be welcome (e.g,. don’t be the parent who asks other kids about their college search within the first minute in the door, on the sideline, etc.).
  • Help your kids have quick answers for well-meaning family members and friends so they can limit stress without feeling disrespectful (“I have a good plan.” Period. Or, “I’m casting a broad net so I’ll have a lot of choices,” and even adding “I would rather not talk too much about the details right now, thanks.”).
  • Well in advance of decision time, help kids know that denials are not a measure of their self-worth or amazing accomplishments. Not all successful people went to highly rated or highly selective universities — not even close.
  • Let your language about college and “success” highlight that YOU really believe there are many roads to the same place, and many schools from which to get a great education to pursue the career or life they want….you do believe this, right?!?! J
  • Be flexible as a parent to allow your child to find his/her way and best timing. Not all people are ready for college at the same time, and not all will be happy going where and when we want them to go. Working or developing a specific talent or traveling first to gain more experience may be a better choice.
  • This point raises another: begin teaching your kids about money and what it costs to have the lifestyle they dream of having. If work (as an obviously necessary experience) is not possible, you can still require them to “earn” money to encourage conversations about financial responsibility. After all, to a large extent the point of college is to help with setting up a solid career, which is about supporting oneself financially and bringing fulfillment to daily living.
  • Remember: a prestigious school is no good, really, if your child is overwhelmed, underprepared, and flounders.
  • I often ask kids: “so what do you want to do all day when you are 25 to pay your bills? And what do you want to do with your weekends and free time?” to encourage them to see what comes after college, as many may see college as the end point (which is what some of the pressure to get it “right” is about).
  • For 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 him/her comfortably explore goals (not SAT scores or grades!) while the pressure is still low. College tours can be good conversation starters for what may make them happy as adults, etc.
  • For lower and middle school parents: conversation about what your children want their lives to be like as adults (from work to fun, relationships, geographic location, etc.) helps to lay the foundation for a grounded perspective of this whole process (and so many others!) much later…and serves to foster their exploration of their passions and inner light now, which will help them navigate so many developmental struggles between now and then.

It is critical for parents to really begin to see their kids as independent young adults with their own goals and dreams—that may not be fully understood yet, and that is 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.

Afterall, don’t we want to talk about “success” and “direction” in a way that emphasizes HAPPINESS and fulfilling purpose and passion, rather than external expectations, labels, and names on letterhead??

It all comes back to what I said first and foremost: your relationship with these human beings, your children, has to remain a priority of far greater importance than college. If so, they will feel it…if not they will feel it even more!  Keeping perspective on what it is like to be them is important to help you survive all of the emotions and uncertainty.  It’s our job to be the adult, modeling tolerance, open-mindedness, optimism, humor, love, honesty, forgiveness…and all of the other character strengths of resilience. That is how you both will survive the stress!  And, if it helps to truly have the perspective of your children, I think this post is a fantastic reference point.

For additional thoughts, read How To Stop The Crazy Race For Elite Colleges.

And for specific college process guidance, see our wonderful College Counseling Center staff!


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