What may really be going on with your high school senior


He got in to ________.    She was deferred from ___________.    He was rejected from ________.   Two more applications to submit.    Anyone know how to fill out the FAFSA?

This is what I have been hearing from seniors in high school and their parents for the past couple of weeks.  The SATs/ACTs/ABCs, the essays, the waiting and that email (in my day it was a thin or thick letter) that elicits exaltation or deep sadness within one click of the mouse.  And, these are just the ones that applied early or rolling admission – this will continue over  the next few months until the big push in April when all colleges will have admitted their incoming freshman class.

I have worked with many seniors in high school.  It is such a pivotal time. In some ways it is a ticket out, a ticket to freedom and a move towards independence.  In many ways it is a very scary time.  As much as the  seniors are flexing their muscles to be on their own, there is something to be said for home cooking, clean clothes and mom and dad lurking around to ensure that life tasks have been checked off, paid for and handled.

Early in my career I worked in high schools and observed the precarious nature of that status of “senior”.  The seniors were the leaders of the school, captains of the teams  and enjoyed privileges of the upper-most upperclassmen (definitely the best parking spots and lunch tables). And yet, in my office they presented as anxious and vulnerable. Would they get in to a college? Would they be able to handle the work load, the transition and the independence?

It is normal to feel apprehensive.  I continually reassure my senior clients that they are not alone in these fears.  They have been under so much pressure since junior year jumping  through all of the “get into college” hoops that they have barely had a moment to ponder what it all means.

Enter second semester senior year, also known as “senioritis” or “senior slump”.   The applications have been submitted; some have heard from schools and some are still waiting.  Grades matter, but not as much as  before.  There is time again to pause, reflect and realize “HOLY COW – I AM GOING TO GRADUATE”.

Seniors may experience this as a sudden shock, a slow building of anxiety or depression or  via other symptoms like withdrawal from friends or a drop in grades.   Some of my clients have suddenly brought home D’s and F’s after a high school career of A’s and B’s.  I talk to them frankly about self-sabatoge; if they have anxiety about graduation and leaving home, a handful of F’s could easily upend that plan without having to admit “I’m nervous about the next step”. It can be easier to crash and burn through that last English credit than have to face the reality that this graduation thing is actually going to happen.

We adults often forget how emotional and challenging this time can be.  Teachers, parents and other adults act as  cheerleaders raving about graduation and the exciting changes that are coming. But the awareness of these trepidatious months can be really helpful;  attend to your seniors, acknowledge that this is a big time of transition and it is okay to feel uneasy or anxious.  They may just appreciate it enough to stick around for dinner one night this week.


Launch Group

I am excited to share about a really  nice group experience that took place in my office this summer.  I offered a group for parents who were launching their kids to college.  The premise was to discuss and process the infinite emotions of letting go of the child that you have raised in your home for the past eighteen years and sending him or her  towards independence, advanced education and out of your daily sight.

Two women and I met on Tuesday  nights for five weeks. We had a visitor for one session, but for the rest of the time it was Mom A, Mom B and myself.  Each of the moms have one child (one has a boy and one has a girl).  The boy is studying at a large state school and the girl went off to a small private school; nevertheless, each mom had similar fears, reactions and hopes for their children.

At the first meeting, I asked what their biggest concerns were regarding sending their only children off to college.  Mom A had been imagining this moment since her baby was born; she was anticipating his leaving before he reached  high school  and had been a puddle of tears during his entire senior year.  Mom B stated that she was worried about whether her daughter was “prepared” for college; would she be okay, could she handle the  situations thrown at her, would she be able to cope independent of her parents.

After confirming that Mom B’s daughter was in fact quite competent and capable, I questioned Mom B about this fear she had.  As we dissected it further, I wondered out loud if maybe Mom B was hyper focusing on her daughter’s level of preparedness because it was easier than being in her own grief, loss and sadness. She listened thoughtfully and shook her head in agreement.  As the women gathered their belongings after the first session, they both expressed that they were feeling a “lightness” as they left the room;  they seemed to have dumped great deal of their heaviness and angst right there on my  red Ikea  throw rug.

Over the next four weeks, it was a joy to watch these woman bond over this extremely emotional experience.  There were tears, anxiety and a great deal of laughter.   Mom B shared that she and Dad B were planning to take an extra night as a “getaway” after the college drop-off as a buffer to entering their, now childless, home.  We thought that was such a great idea that Mom A jumped on board and booked a “getaway” for  her husband and herself.  Mom A clued in Mom B about the Bed Bath and Beyond ordering and shipping process which was a great factoid for the procrastinating shopper B daughter.

Week 4 was especially noteworthy as Mom A had just dropped of her son.  She shared pictures, stories and her  pride  about holding her tears off at the good-bye, only to be hit with the heaviness the following morning. As Mom B walked in to Week 5, she announced  that she was now “part of the club”.   She was able to tell us about the “roller coaster” of emotions during their drop off and how she was planning for her day off the next day to let herself “just be sad”.

At the conclusion of our last group I thanked the women for participating with such rawness and honesty.  I asked for feedback from them and they reiterated that they both felt lighter every time they had come to group. They appreciated having the support of the group, being allowed to emote openly and learning that they were not alone in their grief.

I am  honored to have been able to help these  women through this very emotional time.  I reminded them both that they had done their work; it was normal to be sad, but they had processed their feelings and could allow themselves to be in the moment.  I praised them for investing their time and energy into the group and having the courage to get some help and be honest with one another.  I honestly think that they are each going to be stronger women and better mothers for taking this time for themselves and working through this difficult life transition.

Graduation Day: The Big Dive

In between seeing clients on Thursday, I hopped over to Facebook to see what was going on in my little world (as opposed to those who click on US News and World Report to see what is going on in the big world).  There were many high school graduations in Fairfax County on Thursday and I was treated to numerous photos of young adults that I have known since they were toddlers donning their caps and gowns.  I was also  aware that several of my clients were missing their therapy appointments  graduating that day and I found myself  feeling very emotional.

High School graduation is a  pivotal time. I have likened it with parents of clients to jumping off a diving board.  Will their child dive in gracefully, belly flop or, like most kids,  land somewhere in between  with  a clean dive, but still getting a little water up the nose ?

The graduate is  facing one of his or her first major decisions of  life.  From ages 5-18, every September the child grabs a backpack and goes off to school.  There is no question, it is the law and it is what is done.  The September following high school graduation poses many options: school or work, what kind of school, job possibilities, what state to live in, dorm or home, roommates or parents (ha), the list is endless.  What used to be simply  a question of peanut butter and jelly or turkey and mayo is  now an important decision with longterm effects.  The weight of these decisions and subsequent effects can bring on anxiety for many of these  young graduates.

The family also has growing pains upon graduation.  The parents are watching their baby become independent, move out of the home and realize that clean laundry doesn’t just happen.  They are often thrilled to get the ornery teenager out of the house while still yearning to tuck him in at night.  The parents and child must figure out  how to negotiate new norms : how often do we call, visit, text? What if he gets sick or she runs out of money?  I worked with a mother of a freshman who literally drove 3 hours to her daughter’s school several times a month, slept in the daughter’s  dorm room and was completely enmeshed in the new romantic relationship (e.g.  texting the new boyfriend and knowing WAY too much about their physical relationship).  I tried to help the mother build some boundaries into her relationship with her daughter while also helping her with her grief; the loss of having her little girl need her as the mommy she so desperately wanted to be.  It can be quite a painful process to let go both of the graduate and the identity that surrounds the early parenting years.

Siblings often struggle silently.  There is so much attention on the graduate and the parents’ empty-nest that we forget that the younger sibling is also saying goodbye.  As much as they fight, they are still siblings and share the common link of hating sharing their parents and understanding the subtleties of the family; no one knows your family and/or your parents like your siblings do.  I have one client tell me repeatedly that when her brother went to college she lost someone with whom to “diss on mom”.  Another client shared that he became the center of attention when his sister left for school.  Every grade,  forgotten chore or misbehavior was under scrutiny because he was, as I like to say “the only fish left in the fishbowl” with parents watching from every angle.

As I witness my clients and their families buy the linens, pick their roommates and say good-byes during the summer after graduation, I leave them with my tell-tale speech:  College is an amazing journey;  you will meet fantastic people, have wonderful opportunities and go to a party or two, but YOU HAVE TO GO TO CLASS, the attendance officer is staying at high school.  College is both a privilege and a responsibility .  I have had many a client wind up back on my couch after first semester with a pile of F’s, a drinking problem and looking for a job.

My intention is not to portray the gloom and doom of graduation.  It is a tremendously exciting time with a great deal of joy.  My goal is to identify some of the  the problem areas so that if you find that you or your family are struggling with a glitch or two, it is completely normal.  These feelings and struggles happen to everyone, thus the tears at graduation, it is part of the package.

To the graduates and their families: CONGRATULATIONS! This is a wonderful time. I wish you the gift of being present for the ride: the ups, the downs and the in-betweens.