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Talking to Teens About Life After High School
By Riikka Melartin, Psy.D.
Parent question: I have a freshman and a junior. They don’t seem at all concerned about college or post high school life. Should I start talking to them about it now?
Great question! The two children need slightly different approaches. The end of school feels ages away for your freshman, and they are just settling in and navigating this new experience of high school, so I would let them focus on that transition for now. As far as your sixteen-year old, guidance counselors and other students generally start to talk about post-graduation plans in junior year, so that is a natural time for you as parents to do so as well. If your child is in a high school where most students go to college, buzz about it will be in the air and students will we swapping ideas and information.
Visits to colleges often happen during junior year spring break, summer vacation, and early fall before applications are due. It is of course important to know, if you are assuming that your child will go to college, whether your child has that same assumption. More and more students are taking a gap year even if they are planning to continue academic studies, while yet others might learn a trade, join the military, or work while taking courses part time. Whatever might be in store, now is a great time for you and your child to be curious about the options. Part of your role might be making sure your child understands what will help them achieve their goals (certain courses, tests, or work experience for example.)
If your fourteen-year old (or even seventeen-year old) come up with some outlandish ideas, don’t initially panic or push back; youngsters are likely to change their interests and ideas dozens of times, so reacting strongly to something that is not current but a year to three away is probably not necessary. In fact, it may backfire as it is likely to make them feel unsupported and reluctant to share their thoughts in the future. If a specific dream or idea persists over time, encourage your child to do the research to see if it’s viable right now: do they have the portfolio they need to get into art school? Have they spent time with hairstylists to know whether they’d actually like being one? Does your family have funds or is there good financial aid for that expensive elite college they want?
If your child is college bound, make sure they visit different campuses, even nearby ones if you can’t afford the time or money for travel farther afield. Just being on campus and hearing about college life from current students can help it seem more real and less anxiety provoking, and help your child begin to formulate impressions and preferences. (Campus visits may, of course, be curtailed in this pandemic year, but most colleges provide excellent video and other information that can be almost as useful.)
Many families who have several children will bring the younger ones along on college tours and think that they’ve covered the younger siblings for later. Often though, younger siblings don’t feel the relevance of it for themselves, and thus may not pay much attention. While going along with an older brother can normalize the idea of college and spark interest, each child should ideally be able to do their own visits when they’re actually about to start the application process. My previous column about how to help your child through college application angst may be helpful to you as well.
Riikka Melartin, Psy.D. is a licensed psychologist who provides individual therapy, counseling, and consultation for clients who are diverse in age, ethnicity, and sexual orientation. Until recently, she also worked as a school psychologist.
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