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Cheers and Tears: Riding the Graduation Rollercoaster

By Monica Arora, MD May 10, 2024 Posted in: Mental Health

‘Tis the season for tasseled hats, brightly colored gowns and future plans. Graduation is more than a joyful finale to high school. It’s an important developmental milestone that marks an exciting new chapter of young adulthood. 

This much-anticipated time marks a significant transition period, and it can feel like an emotional rollercoaster for many students and parents. Pressure can mount as seniors approach this long-anticipated finish line. Emotions and stressors can be difficult to navigate as grads and parents face a newly independent future with more unknowns than knowns. 

Amid the pre-graduation planning and activities, it’s important to keep tabs on your graduate and how they – and you – are coping with this journey. 

Potential Stressors for Graduates

Expectations about achievements/future. 

Teens look at each life achievement through their lens and they may struggle with how to complete this journey. They may worry about meeting their own and their parents’ expectations. They also may experience doubt that they will be successful or that they have the tools they need. Fear of failure is normal. 

Uncertainties, anxiety and fear about the unknown. 

Students and parents may be wondering what life will be like, and how it will unfold going forward – whether it’s toward college, the workforce or a gap year. Each choice comes with a lot of decisions and that can create anxiety. 

Sense of loss/grief. 

Teens are strongly rooted in activities, friend groups and the community. This transition can come with losses, such as loss of a sense of familiarity, structure and predictability, as well as loss of relationships with friends, significant others, teachers and coaches. Even though new grads are excited, they will realize they’re leaving something behind and it’s normal to have these feelings.  

Pressure and stress. 

There may be performance and academic pressure and even financial pressure as students apply for scholarships and loans. They may experience stress anticipating working hard to maintain scholarships while learning to fit in in a new environment. This stress and pressure can come from themselves and/or from those around them. 

Comparison despair.

Around this time, grads start getting asked a lot of questions about their future. There can be a lot of comparison to what peers are doing and the paths they are taking. Even if there’s no obvious pressure, teens at this stage may perceive it or apply it on themselves. It’s important to acknowledge that each person has a unique journey. 

Watch for Signs of Distress

  • Decline in performance, academic grades, or involvement in extracurricular activities. Students might seem more distracted and procrastinate more. 
  • Withdrawal and social isolation. Seniors might not hang out with friends or spend more than usual time in their room. They might turn down social invitations they’d normally say yes to. 
  • Somatic symptoms such as changes in sleep, eating, and energy levels.
  • Emotional distress, including being more sad, anxious or irritable, or having a heightened emotional response – especially when talking about future goals. 
  • Experimentation with drugs and alcohol. Students may on one level justify it as a celebration of this event. It’s important to discern if they are using substances to self-medicate or as a tool to cope. 

Helpful Strategies for Parents

Maintain a supportive environment.

  • Be emotionally available and promote positive communication.
  • Listen to concerns and validate feelings.
  • Meet teens where they are emotionally; stay in the here and now.

Acknowledge successes.

  • Kids can forget what their achievements are, so help them maintain perspective.
  • Remember that the past is not a predictor of the future.
  • Emphasize being the best version of themselves.

Foster independence.

  • Prioritize your grad’s active involvement in the decision-making process. 
  • Your role is to provide guidance, so let grads be in the driver’s seat.
  • Remember that allowing teens to be in charge helps their growth and independence.

Encourage self-care.

  • Good diet, exercise and sleep are important.
  • Prosocial activities are also beneficial. 
  • Continuing with regular hobbies helps relieve anxiety.

Prepare resources.

  • Stay informed and educate yourself. Go to the college fair, for example, so you know what resources are available.
  • Guide teens toward experts like guidance, career and financial aid counselors.
  • Remember your role is to provide resources, not do the tasks or make decisions for them.

Acknowledge your own anxiety.

  • Anticipate conflicting emotions with this shift in roles.
  • Encourage independence while acknowledging it can be hard to let go. It’s easy to feel like you’re losing your baby, and you may fear for safety and worry about their success.
  • Trust the life learning process, because life has a way of teaching young people important lessons – even if they make mistakes.
  • Manage your own expectations and be reasonable. Make sure your child’s goals are truly their goals, and not your goals.

Take care of yourself.  

  • Aim for a healthy diet, sleep, exercise and social activities. 
  • Seek support from other parents and friends. 
  • Keep communication lines open with your partner and your child.

This time will go by quickly. Please make sure to take time to fully celebrate your new grad and yourself. You did it! If you need support from a professional, visit CHIhealth.com/behavioral to find a provider near you.

 

Monica Arora, MD
Monica Arora, MD

Monica Arora, MD, is a child and adolescent psychiatry provider at CHI Health.

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