Emotions and expectations often run high as a teen enters their senior year of high school. The culmination of a lifetime of education, special senior activities, and the prospects of a future with more independence can be exciting and liberating.
But senior year can also have challenges. Today, youth and young adults are more anxious than ever. A 2018 Pew Research Center survey found that 70 percent of teens believe anxiety and depression are a “major problem” for their generation. As their last year of school begins, the sense that childhood is ending can be saddening and the thought of leaving high school can make a graduating senior see the future as life without a safety net.
Saying goodbye to familiar environments, established routines, friends, and support built over the years can make graduation feel less liberating and more terrifying. Some youth see responsibility as something to be feared, they are afraid of “screwing up” or making a “wrong decision.” Add the stress of planning next steps, filling out college or job applications, demanding homework, testing, social media, pressure to fit in, and pressure to achieve goals and seniors often feel burnt out, anxious, or suffer from other more intense mental health symptoms. Many will find it difficult to focus on their actual senior year, becoming unmotivated and stressed about the future, letting grades drop, or not enjoying the celebration of all they have already accomplished.
In order to avoid the pitfalls of senior year it’s important to talk to your teen. Start the conversation as school begins and regularly check in with them regarding their stress level and how they are feeling. Let your senior know that although good grades, college admissions or decisions about the future are important, their physical and mental health are also priorities.
Casa Pacifica Director of Clinical Services Josh Lepore, Psy.D. notes “It’s important for parents to know the difference between normal stress that many high school seniors experience, versus generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), depression or other symptoms of mental health illness that may need more formal therapeutic intervention. There are seven core symptoms of GAD parents can be on the lookout for in their teen to help them determine if they need professional support.”
• Feelings of nervousness or anxiety
• The inability to stop or control worrying
• Worrying about a variety of things
• Inability to relax
• Restlessness, or difficulty sitting still
• Frequently Irritable or annoyed
• Fearful that something bad will happen
In addition, parents can look for the following: changes in diet, weight or sleep habits of their youth, signs that their teen is withdrawing socially or seems disinterested in activities they previously enjoyed, complaints of aches and pains that don’t subside, persistent thoughts of hopelessness or suicide. If your teen has five or more of these symptoms, seems depressed most of the time or has had a loss of interest or pleasure during the same two week period or longer, it may be time to seek professional help.
Here are some tips to help you and your senior make the last year of school the best:
1) Let them know they are not alone. Many teens struggle with stress, anxiety, or general mental, health especially in their senior year. Talk to them about the stigma around mental health and make sure they know it’s ok to ask for help and provide them with resources, so they know where to get help if they feel they need it.
2) Don’t let them forget to enjoy their senior year. Your teen has worked hard to get where they are, make sure he/she knows how proud you are of their accomplishments. Avoid “senioritis” by setting small goals, taking breaks when needed, and balancing study time with the fun, senior specific activities most high schools will plan. Remind them to be in the moment and enjoy the journey.
3) Have your teen try something new! Taking healthy risks, like trying a new class or learning a new skill can help your teen build confidence. Check into the many clubs, groups, or teams offered on campus and help your senior find a new activity. Extracurricular school activities can be a great way to make new friends and get a break from senior responsibilities.
4) Make a plan early. Sit down with your family and outline the year so your teen knows what to expect and can prioritize time. Get information about requirements early so you can get ahead of graduation expectations, vocational school, job, or college admissions deadlines.
5) Let your senior know it’s ok to be unsure or make mistakes. This can be a wonderful time of exploration, and that means decisions don’t need to be written in stone - everyone’s path is different. If your teen faulters or is indecisive make sure they know it’s ok. Research nontraditional options – not all teens are ready to jump to a four-year university track right away. Options like a community college, trade school, or job opportunity may be a better fit for some.
Senior year is the closing of a chapter and an exciting transition into a more independent journey. It can also be an opportunity for your teen to learn, grow, celebrate, and reflect on what they have learned. With planning and open communication, you can help your senior stay on track and still enjoy what their last year of high school has to offer.