Graduation Can Be Stressful For Teens

Tips on Teens #008

So your kid is graduating and moving on to the next level of education.  As a parent you are overflowing with pride and hope, excited that your child is moving on to new heights.  You are overjoyed with excitement and ready for the next step.  So why isn’t your kid?  

Wait a minute, Kent.  Are you suggesting that my child might not be confidently jubilant and feel passionately ready to move on to new and more difficult challenges?


teenager hiding anxiety about graduation from mother

Yes, that is exactly what I am suggesting.  In an adolescent’s life, there are generally three graduations that lead to new beginnings.  The first transition can often be the most uncomfortable… the move from elementary school to middle school.

But I loved middle school (junior high for some of us).  What could be so frightening?

This may be the biggest transition your child has ever gone through in his life.  Even if it isn’t, this still might be the scariest shift in your child’s educational and social experience.  Your kid is just beginning his journey through adolescence at this stage and change can unsettle a young 11-year-old’s confidence in himself.  

Your child will go from just one class with one teacher to up to six or seven classes and teachers each day.  He will have many more responsibilities in keeping track of schoolwork, locker combinations and P.E. clothes just to name a few.  

Most importantly, social dynamics will change.  Pre-teens go from being the big kids in school to becoming scrubs… the bottom of the adolescent food chain.  In fact, there is a decent chance that they will have to make brand new friends because their old friends don’t go to the same middle school, or an even scarier thought… their friends might run off to join a different social circle and leave them feeling abandoned.  Remember, that now is the time when your kid will begin developing his sense of identity as an individual… an exploration that will be a major part of his emotional development for the next ten to fifteen years.

Oh middle school isn’t that bad.  It’s not like anything terrible happens there.  Aren’t they too young to get in any serious trouble?

Middle school is where forbidding things like drugs, alcohol, sex and violence begin to be explored by some kids.  Did you know that many students fear going into the school bathrooms?  The reason is bathrooms can be havens for drugs and violence out of the watchful eye of school administrators… even some of the nice suburban middle schools where students wear clean-cut uniforms.  

Most likely, your child will learn how to navigate through these changes as they happen, but he’ll need your help.  Why?  Because he is still a child who doesn’t have the luxury of your adult perspective.  Instead, he has a still-developing teenage brain.  All he knows is frightening rumors and speculation based on his own fearful imagination.  Your child may need some reassurance and understanding from you to help him get through the anxiety of moving on to middle school.  The more of a safe place you are for him to go for help, the less likely he falls prey to losing himself to those things that parents fear most.

Okay, I can kind of get why middle school is a big transition, but high school is the exact same thing, but with older kids.  She already knows how to balance six classes.  Why is my once good kid now struggling to meet the demands of high school?

This change can be deceptively difficult for a teenager.  On the surface it appears to be the same, but underneath is a whole new social dynamic.  Dating pressures are more prevalent and more complex (sorry, didn’t mean to shock you there).  For example, it is more accepted (and in some instances, expected) for freshmen and sophomore girls to date seniors than it is for boys… girls generally don’t date younger guys in high school.  More importantly, kids are maturing at different rates, which can lead to losing life long friends and having to branch out and find new identities in order to fit in with new cliques.  These are just a few examples of why your teenager seems overly emotional, makes poor choices and can’t seem to focus on school.  

Additionally, the brain development that started around the time she entered middle school is even more intense.  Therefore, her impulsivity, emotional regulation and understanding of cause and effect are all compromised even further than before.  

Alcohol, drugs and sex become more expected pastimes amongst high school kids and they are ever-present.  Parents might NOT accept those activities however, which of course can create a great deal of conflict within a teenager’s life.  Fighting and other violent behavior on the other hand becomes less likely with kids who have not started down a pattern of violence; but for those kids who join crews, gangs or just fight for fun, the stakes become much higher and the risk of serious injury or jail time increases.  

Schoolwork gets harder and more is expected of your teen, which can get overwhelming.  Teens by and large gain more freedoms in high school and are required to monitor their own time more effectively than before.  For some teens, demonstrating self-restraint and good judgment is too difficult for them to manage on their own.  That is why instead of facing the pressures of studying for her biology exam, your daughter spends hours of valuable time engrossed in social media.  To some extent, your teen is aware that she is making ill-advised choices, but her impulsivity gets the better of her.  This internal conflict makes her feel a little anxious and sometimes crazy.  The ways she probably chooses to deal with it is by reaching out for immediate gratification and picking fights with you so she can distract herself from facing her own guilt and remorse.  This of course is an unconscious thought process, so she’s not really even aware why she makes these choices.  

But once my kid graduates high school, he becomes an adult.  Isn’t that what he wants?  What could be stressing him out from graduating high school?

This transition is probably the most varied in how teens respond to the stress.  All kids wait for that glorious day of getting out of school so life can really begin!  That self-imposed expectation can lead to tremendous pressure.

  • What if I fail?
  • What if I’m not great… or even good enough?
  • I’m going to feel so alone!
  • I was supposed to be happy, since I am not, does that make me worthless?
  • These are just a handful of worries that your teen may face when graduating from high school.  

Your kid knows that he finally made it… he’s an adult (at least from a legal standpoint, the human brain is not fully developed until roughly 25 years of age).  He is now responsible for his own actions, even if he is still living at home.  College professors are not going to send reminders home about homework and he’ll never get in trouble for skipping class… he’ll just get an “F” for not passing his tests.  

He has to find a job and start thinking about developing a career.  Unfortunately, he may have no idea what to do with his life.  By the way, he IS thinking about this even if he tells you otherwise.  The myth that he has to pick his one and only career right now may be too overwhelming.  Instead of trying something out to see if he likes it, he may be paralyzed and do nothing.  Leaving home for college or the military may also be terrifying as it is probably the first time that your child has ever been that far away from the comforts of home for that long.  

Again, social dynamics change even further.  Romantic relationships become increasingly more intense.  Friendships can often grow apart or even end.  Picking the right fraternity or sorority is terribly stressful and can destroy life long relationships with friends if they don’t fit into the new social structure.  

Alright, I understand that graduation can be nerve wracking, but what am I supposed to do about it to help my kid?

Change is hard enough for adults (starting a new job, career, relationship, etc.).  Many grown-ups struggle when forced to transform a part of their lives.  Imagine what it must be like for a not-fully-developed teenage brain to tolerate such big changes.  Just like you, your teen will most likely get through these life changing struggles, but she sure could use some help by way of your emotional support and non-judgmental encouragement along the way.  That support can help alleviate some of the stress your teenager is under and may be just what she needs to find the courage to push through and succeed at the next level academically, socially and occupationally.  That builds confidence and increases self-esteem, leading to an easier journey through teenagerhood and eventually graduating to adulthood.

(updated article from June 2007)

Remember that adolescence is a temporary mental disorder and will pass within a few years.

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