October 19, 2022
I remember the phone call like it was yesterday, although it occurred more than 35 years ago. In the summer between my freshman and sophomore years in college, I performed in a student-directed production of the musical ‘Hair’ in Harvard Square. It had moved from our alma mater in Providence, Rhode Island beginning in June and it was my first real chance to follow my dream of acting. As a cast, we lived the ‘Hair’ experience, sharing a three-bedroom apartment in Somerville, cooking meals together, rehearsing in local parks, and doing seven shows a week. It was exhilarating, inspiring, wonderful, and exhausting every single day.
In mid-August, the show was picked up for an autumn run by an independent and our college offered, in fact, recommended, that we take the semester off instead of combining our studies with such a rigorous performance schedule. I agreed. So, on a sunny August afternoon at a payphone on a busy street, I called my parents to tell them that I wasn’t returning to school. There was dead silence on the other end. Then my mother shrieked “WHAAAT? ARE YOU KIDDING ME? I don’t think so.” My father simply said, “I’m not supporting this in any way, including financially.” Then the call was over and I was in tears. Of course, I did it anyway without a single regret and managed perfectly well on my own.
While taking a gap year or semester is much more commonplace now, it’s still a leap of faith for many parents to let go of the socially prescribed notion that college is the logical and direct next step after high school. In fact, many neurodivergent teens, especially those with ADHD, can really benefit from an additional year to strengthen executive functioning skills and build strategies for connected independence. But all too often, families are afraid to opt for an alternative plan. They’re not sure if their kids will actually go to college, they worry about what to say to friends or family members, and most importantly, they don’t want this gap period to “be a waste of time.” How can you redefine what post-high school success looks like for your teen and set up a program that benefits everybody?
The first step is to define what success means to you as parents or educators and to your students. For my parents, success meant graduating in four years and getting a good-paying, career-oriented job after that. But that wasn’t my only definition. Yes I wanted to be self-supporting and yes I had every intention of graduating but I also wanted to experiment a bit, explore my identity as an artist, and make some decisions for myself. Years later, as a parent of two kids who both took time off during their college years, I tried to recall these desires and apply them. I have to admit, though, it wasn’t easy at times. We had several brainstorming sessions with lots of listening on my part as they hammered out what their time away would look like. I did my best to offer guidance only when asked, although I definitely slipped a few times and gave some unwanted advice too. They let me know when I overstepped and I apologized. The main goals of these conversations were to make sure my kids felt the kind of support about their journeys I wished I had received and to forge a sound plan of action that excited them and reassured me enough about their safety.
Emerging adulthood, according to researcher Jeffrey Arnett (2014) is characterized by five elements: Identity explorations, instability, self-focus, feeling in-between, sense of future possibilities. Ultimately, for teens to transition into competent, confident adults they will need to go through a time of exploration, asking ‘Who am I? Where do I belong? What do I believe? What do I want to do with my time?’ Sadly, all too often, I see parents who, despite loving intentions, overfocus on what they think is best for their kids without really understanding where they actually are in terms of their social-emotional and cognitive development. These caring adults are simply overfocused on a particular way of things working out that stresses rather than supports who their children really are and what makes sense for them at this stage.
How can you set realistic performance and college expectations for your kids? You don’t want to be a snow plow or helicopter parent but you also don’t want to stop encouraging them to apply themselves and use their gifts. This is the million dollar question for every parent of an emerging adult. The answer lies in meeting your kids where they are, not where you think they should be. When you soften your expectations and make a space for them to share their vision and ideas about themselves, you are truly showing up as a parent who puts their well-being before societal norms.
Take a minute now and go back to your 18-year-old self. What did success look like for you? What were some of your heart’s desires? How would you have liked your folks to respond if you shared them? If your child shows interest in taking the road less traveled, identify your concerns and your expectations with your partner, friend, or therapist before talking with them. Ideally, you don’t want your worries to leak out so kids feel distrusted and misunderstood. Instead of a productive conversation, you’ll likely end up in a shouting match or silent seething with a defensive teen. Remember, they believe in their ideas and they want to feel heard. Set up a weekly meeting to discuss this topic and keep it contained to those times so this topic isn’t dominating your lives. Use reflective listening tools to mirror back what you hear as a sign that you are attuned to their opinions. Write ideas down, divide up different research tasks and then regroup at your next meeting. Let them know that as part of maturing into adulthood their initiative matters. You’ll assist them of course (let’s face it, how many 17-year-olds can make a budget and plan finances accurately) but you can’t do this for them. It’s with them all the way.
There is no single path to adulthood. We want to assist our kids in understanding their unique strengths and challenges to work collaboratively to find a situation that makes the most sense. Some kids are driven and know exactly what they want; others are more unsure. It’s especially true that many neurodivergent teens and young adults are delayed in several aspects of executive functioning skills and emotional maturity. They simply need more time and life experience before moving out on their own. Many of my clients with ADHD of this age group tell me that they can do school or they can do life but they can’t manage both of these things simultaneously. Unfortunately, they come to this realization after failing out of college, experiencing major depression, and being ashamed of what occurred.
For this reason, these folks may opt for attending a local community or four-year college and live at home for the first year. Or, they may take a gap year working and boarding on an organic farm or pursue an apprenticeship in print-making while working at CVS and living in a group apartment. It’s normal for many youngsters in this post-Covid era to need space to recover from what happened during the past two years. As parents, we have to remember that life is long, and taking some time now could really pay off in the future if there is some type of program in place. But everybody needs to know how to describe your choice to curious family and friends. Both you and your kids will feel better when you can answer “What are you doing after school?” with clarity and pride in your decision. Having no answer often makes kids feel bad about themselves, fostering unwanted shame and anxiety.
You may discuss various options with your teen and come to a group decision that you agree that a four year college is the right choice. Your child may have the academic and life skills for this level of autonomy. That’s great. If your child is neurodivergent, be sure the school has good academic support and counseling services and register them with the office of student disabilities so they can obtain necessary support. Transform your anxiety about the next phase of life by wondering what could happen instead of worrying about it. Rely on curiosity and openness as the keys to maintaining your connection with your teen and sharing excitement in the various options ahead of them. In the long run, this is what it’s all about anyway.
You may also be interested in reading more articles written by Sharon Saline, Psy.D. for Intrepid Ed News.