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  • Writer's pictureAlmeera Eman

Parent Series: How to support your teen on their gap year

This episode is for all of the parents out there! When our kids don’t know what to do, they look to us as parents, but what if we don’t know what to do either?! A gap year is uncharted territory and that is why we are here to support you and your child during this exciting yet nerve wracking time.

Michelle Dittmer, your resident gap year expert, shares her guide on how to effectively support your young person during their gap year and transition into adulthood. She discusses the importance of vulnerable conversations and her formula to support your child when they are facing challenges.

This episode is packed with valuable advice and resources that you can access to further support your family.

Topics Discussed

  • Parenting a teen who is transitioning into adulthood is not easy, learn how you can overcome this challenge while still supporting your young person.

  • How to show your kid you support them, using your actions and not just words.

  • Why having vulnerable and open conversations is the best way to build trust between you and your child.

  • Learn Michelle’s 4-step formula to help your child overcome challenges.

  • Learn about the Gap Year Gameplan, one-on-one coaching and many more resources that will support your family.

Resources Mentioned In This Episode

Connect With The Canadian Gap Year Association


Michelle Dittmer - 00:00

Hey there and welcome to the Gap Year podcast! My name is Michelle Dittmer and I am your host and resident gap year expert.

Parent to parent, we all want what is best for our kids. We want them to be happy. We want them to be healthy. We want them to feel fulfilled and successful and it pains us more than they will ever know to see them struggle, see them suffer or see them get hurt. Growing pains are harder on us parents even though our kids don't necessarily fully understand that. So much so is it difficult on us that we wish they came with an instruction manual because parenting is not easy.

I heard a saying once, small kids, small problems, big kids, big problems. Gone are the days when a kiss can make a boo boo all better. Gone are the days when we were bummed that they didn't make the school basketball team. Now we are on to adult size problems. But we're adults, we should know how to handle them, right? Wrong.

Being an emerging adult today is vastly different than it was when we were their age, and if your kid is thinking of taking a gap year or is taking a gap year, perhaps that is uncharted territory for you.

Each year I speak with hundreds of families and mentor dozens of gappers, and I want to give parents some insight into how you can best support your kid on their gap year.

So both of you can come out on the other end stronger and with a more solid grown up kid to parent relationship.

Michelle Dittmer - 01:51

Now if you're interested in this, I highly recommend that you join our Facebook parent group and will put a link to that in the show notes. This is an incredibly supportive community where we talk about some of the challenges and some of the ways that we can support or step back when we need to in our young persons gap year. So come join us in that community. It's a free community, lots of really great resources and opportunities to talk with other families who are going through something very similar to you. So again, we'll see you in that Facebook group.

Michelle Dittmer - 02:28

Let’s jump into some of the things that these young people are looking for from you and how you can actually deliver on that.

The first thing that you should know is that your support means the world to them. And when I say support, I don't mean that you're going to pay for their gap year. I mean that you show them that you believe in them and that you trust them, and that is a huge thing that these young people are looking for from their parents.

Now, what does that look like on a gap year? How do you believe in them? How do you trust them? How do you show that? How do you communicate that without just simply using those words because we all know that actions are stronger than words.

We also know that sometimes our teenagers aren't actually listening to the words that are coming out of our mouths. So what does this look like?

You need to acknowledge that they are not a child anymore. You can do this verbally and you can do this through the actions that you're showing them that they are capable of making decisions and having autonomy over their lives.

Now don't get me wrong, they still live in your house and should be expected to follow your rules, but there has to be an understanding of how you can exist together as adults in the household. So we have a really great tool that I will link to in the show notes that has the specific conversations you should have with your young person as they go into their gap year and it will help set some ground rules around how you are going to behave and it covers things like what are rules on significant others, who pays for gas, are you charging rent, what are acceptable activities on the gap year.

So really great conversation starters you should have with your young person and set the ground rules well ahead of time so that the expectations are really super clear. Then you need to really, really trust them based on those ground rules to have some autonomy over the other elements of things that are going on in their life.

They really want to make you proud and they want to live up to your expectations while forging their own path and sometimes what they think your expectations are and the path they want to forge, don't line up perfectly or your kid has some misunderstood assumption of what your expectations are that are totally different than the reality.

So what can we do about that?

Michelle Dittmer - 05:25

Have a conversation! Talk about what each other's goals are for the gap year and get that out in the open as early as you can in the gap year. Or even in the planning stages pre gap year we have a great download like I mentioned so check that out. Great conversation starters.

I'm also going to recommend another book here and this is something that I recommend all parents of teens should read. This is a book called How to Talk so teens will listen and how to listen so teens will talk. It It is an incredible book that talks about some of the strategies for setting up the environment, setting up the conversation.

It's done in comic book form, so it is a very easy read and there are some tricks that even the most difficult teenagers will respond to, so take that and go get it. Read it through and all of the conversations that I'm suggesting here can be made easier with some of those tips and tricks and techniques in that book. Again, it's a comic book, have fun with it and go for it!

Michelle Dittmer - 06:41

Something else you should know about the gap year process is that your kid is going to struggle with managing their time. It's inevitable. They don't have any experience doing this, so why would we expect them to be able to be successful at that? We can't.

They have gone from a situation where somebody literally rings a bell and they go to an assigned seat in an assigned room and they complete tasks that are given to them in bite size form.

They have never had a blank slate of time that they are responsible for filling with their own activities, so it is something outside of their skill level, and it's OK to watch them fail at this. It's hard to watch. Our instinct is to be angry or to take over and fix it, but as an adult child of yours, this is a skill they need to learn, and the only way they're going to learn it is by doing it themselves.

So don't fix it, don't nag them but don't just let them sit on the couch for an entire year because that's not helpful either. So then if I'm saying don't fix it, don't nag them and don't let them do it. Then what other options are there? What are other tools are in your tool belt? So if you had that conversation about expectations and goals at the beginning? Go back and ask them how the progress is going towards those goals.

Not in a snarky way that's not helpful, but come at it from a place of genuine curiosity.

Language like “remember how excited you were when you were talking about finally getting your drivers license? How's that going?” Allow them to give their answer and follow up by something like “motivation and initiative is really hard. I've been there too and something that I found helpful is now insert your trick here. Maybe it's accountability, maybe it's setting mini goals, creating a reward for yourself when you accomplish something, give them something that has worked for you. We don't want to launch into a big long story about you and your youth because we know how that turns out.

But give them a quick snippet, a quick easy technique that has worked for you from a really genuine place. Don't suggest that they use it, just say that's what worked for you.

Then give them some space and finally end with. Can I do anything to help you achieve your goal? Now odds are they're going to say no, because they want to be independent.

They want to do it, but they know that you're available for them if they need it.

Now is the hard part. Now you've got to back off. No need to follow up, no need to nag.

They are in training to be Grown Ups, but they still have a lot of that sensitivity to parental, Let's call it as they see it meddling and they will learn either through failure and disappointment, or by adjusting their course. Now you can repeat this formula for just about any challenge your kid is going through.

Highlight your kid's goal, or expectation or ideas. Identify the missing skill and give one suggestion of how to practice to gain that skill. Offer support and back off.

So I'm going to say that again, just for the people in the back. Here are the steps.

Step number one. Identify or bring up the initial goal or expectation that your kids set for themselves. So highlight your kids own goals as step number one. Step #2 is to identify the missing skill and give one suggestion of how to practice it or gain that skill. Step #3 offer support. And step #4 back off.

Michelle Dittmer - 11:02

Let me give you an example of what this might look like. Maybe your young person is having trouble finding a job. Here's what this might sound like. You wanted to earn some money to pay for school on your gap year and it sucks that you can't find a job. Persistence and creativity can be exhausting. When I'm looking for connections, I reach out to people I know and ask for recommendations. Is there anyone I can introduce you to? Now back off.

Here's another example that's quite common: they're not meeting new people, or they're feeling lonely. I've noticed you aren't going out with friends so much anymore, and I know that's always been important to you. It must be challenging to be doing something different than your friends. Making friends as a grown up is hard. I met most of my friends through formal activities like work, or Sports, or volunteering. Perhaps you want to give that a try if you want to give that a try. I'm happy to pay for the registration fee or help in some other way and back off.

Show them the baby steps. This is the next trick or tool that I am going to share with you. Maybe they want to move out to school, but they are super nervous about that experience. They don't have all the skills, they need an education, we call this scaffolding.

Give them baby steps to make that possible. Start off with something in the house. Make them responsible for the meal plans and the grocery list for that week. And just run with it if they're going to do Kraft dinner every night, then so be it. The whole family is going to have to learn to live with what's going on. They forgot to put milk on the grocery list. You got to figure out how to have a week without milk.

Make that an opportunity for them to take on some adulting responsibility that will develop this skill for them in order to become more independent.

Now give them a little bit more responsibility. Maybe you and your partner are going to go away for a week and leave them alone and in charge of the house. That includes not setting up a meal plan, not doing the groceries and allowing them to take on that responsibility for their weak alone.

Level it up again. Rent an Airbnb. Somewhere in your town or your city and give them a space to go and live on their own for a while. This could be a week. This could be a month. This could be 3 months somewhere where they have the support system of you and your family, but they still have to do it all independently. They've got to cook and clean. They've got to do their laundry. They've got to figure out how to get around on public transit.

Whatever that might be. Give them that opportunity to live on their own, but still have that nice emotional and physical support when needed because they're not too far away.

Then send them on a trip somewhere, whether that's renting an Airbnb in another city or going on a travel experience with a group, give them an opportunity to do something that levels up.

Michelle Dittmer - 14: 27

Now the last tip that's going to fit into this episode is for you to be a model for them. Be a vocal model for them, bring them behind the curtain of being a grown up. This is going to go a long way in terms of really showing them that you believe in them, and that you think they're ready to be a grown up.

Your kid looks up to you and notices what you are doing and saying even if they are doing it while on their phone or hanging out in their bedroom. If you come home from work and just sit on the couch all night, every night and weekends, how can you expect them to do anything differently?

Model taking courses, joining clubs, having friends over, taking on new projects, reading cool books and talking about all of these things. Make sure that they understand that you are doing things, even if it is maintaining the house, even if it is going to the bank, make sure they know what you're up to and all of that is part of adulting.

Simple comments like hey, I was thinking of joining a dance class because I feel like I'm not as active as I would like and I have been feeling a bit lonely and would love to meet some new people. Or maybe something like I was going to return this book to the library, but I think you might actually like to read it. It's about and then insert whatever

Or, hey, it's tax season. Have you ever seen us do our taxes? Do you want to come and learn because you'll have to do your own taxes next year.

All of these things really showcase that you believe in your young person and that they know they are ready to become adults. So there you go. Those are some of my top tips on how to support your kiddo, but let's be real.

Michelle Dittmer - 16:27

Your kid might not want your advice, no matter how good you think it is. That's why we have built in so many amazing supports at the Canadian Gap Year Association. We know teenagers we know gap years and if your kid needs some accountability or a loose structure and a community of people rooting for them and you want to preserve your relationship with your kid or you just think having other people as part of that support group would be beneficial?

Then the Gap Year game plan is the program for them. If they need a fair bit more guidance, maybe they want to work one-on-one with me as their gap year coach. I like to call myself the cool aunt, but obviously cool is subjective because I'm not cool, but I call myself the cool aunt. I'm someone that mum and dad can trust as a credible and professional source of information.

But the key here is I am not mum or dad. I have different ideas.I don't live with them but I am cheering them on and/or kicking their butts to help them reach their gap year goals.

I also bring the experience of guiding families for over 10 years and the gappers that I coach always share how amazing it is to have someone who truly believes in them and can provide guidance and ideas on any point in their gap year journey. So please know that both the game plan and the coaching are options for your family.

Michelle Dittmer - 18:02

But if I could give you an overarching theme for successfully supporting your kid on their gap year, it would be quite simply vulnerable communication. Talk or text often. Don't avoid hard conversation. Show your struggles, believe in them, give them space to figure it out, but let them know that you will still have their back.

Please let me know if you want to strengthen their support system by engaging with our resources. The best way to do that is to book a free 30 minute chat with us at and we will be there to help find the right resources to make sure that this is a successful gap year for both you as the parent and for your young person.

I hope to see you inside our parent Facebook group, that's linked in the show notes. But you've got this and your kid is lucky to have you in their corner. Thanks for tuning in and until next time my friends keep on adventuring.

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