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  • Writer's pictureAlmeera Eman

Talking to your Teen about Taking a Gap Year

Most parents would think that if they offered their teenager an opportunity to take a gap year, they would say yes in a heartbeat! Imagine all of the exciting adventures, learning opportunities and the ability to earn some extra money - what's not to love! Well, to your surprise, some teenagers are actually reluctant to take a gap year, even if they may not be 100% ready for higher education.

Today’s episode is jam packed with tons of great advice from Michelle! We dive straight into the top 3 reasons why your teen may be opposed to taking a gap year, what post-secondary readiness looks like, plus a walkthrough of how you can approach this conversation to get your teen on board!

Take a listen!

Topics Discussed

  • What are parents reaching out and talking to CanGap about?

  • The top 3 reasons why teenagers are hesitant to take a gap year (some of these may surprise you!)

  • How to have productive conversations with your young person that will encourage them to think about pursuing a gap year.

  • The 6 factors of post-secondary readiness - and having your teen use this as a benchmark to assess whether they are ready for higher education.

  • Action steps to take to make them feel confident about pursuing a gap year.

Resources Mentioned In This Episode

Connect With The Canadian Gap Year Association


Michelle Dittmer - 00:00

Most people assume that I spend my days helping kids convince their parents that a gap year is a good idea.

When the reality is 50% of folks have both parents and kids on board, 25% are kids needing to convince their parents, but that final 25% is growing rapidly and it's actually parents wanting their kids to take a gap year, but the kids are resisting.

If this sounds like you, take a listen to our top tips in this episode.

Michelle Dittmer - 01:17

Hey there and welcome the Gap Your Podcast. My name is Michelle Dittmer and I am your host and Gap Your Expert.

So here at the Canadian Gap Your Association, people usually assume that we have young people reaching out to us to help them muster the courage to ask their parents if they could take a break from being a student and that we provide them with persuasive tools to convince them.

And while yes we do that, in the last three years we have seen a huge increase that more and more often it's actually the parents reaching out to us to convince their children to take time off.

Now when we offer our free 30 minute consultations to provide advice and information, I would say about now 25% of the time it's actually parents asking how they can help their kid to see the value in slowing down.

Which I think is maybe the opposite of what we usually think. Well of course young people want to take a break, they want to take a year off but that's not necessarily the case.

So what are parents reaching out and talking to us about? What are they seeing in their young people? And this might be you, these parents that come to us and see that their child needs a break from all of their studies, they're talking to us about how their young person is stressed out, burnt out, has poor mental health, we hear a lot of social anxiety, so we see that mental health component in some cases.

We also hear a lot of parents recognizing in their young person what they determine or what they call a lack of maturity and that comes out in feeling like their kid is not ready for this next step, that they won't take it seriously.

Often it is males with later birthdays or students who have skipped grades or families from Ontario who used to have that 13th year, that OAC year, looking at their young person and saying, I was barely ready at 19, how was my kid ready at 17 or 18? So that lack of maturity is also something that parents are identifying.

Or that their young person has unrealistic expectations of what their next step is going to be like, that their young person thinks they have all the skills, or they know what direction they want to head in when the reality is that they're still a 17 or 18 year old that is maybe a little bit lost, maybe a little bit unprepared for what is coming.

And in very few cases, the parents think that their young person isn't going to get into any of their schools and is going to have to default into that gap year and wants to kind of prep them ahead of time.

So that's what the parents are seeing from the parents' end, but why are students bokeying at this opportunity?

Because let's be honest, if you gave me the option to take a year off, I know I would take it in a heartbeat.

Michelle Dittmer - 04:35

But let's look at what this means from their perspective, so putting yourself in the shoes of a 17 or 18 year old young person so what is going on in their heads where they are maybe not seeing that this is an option for them or this is something that they would even entertain.

So one of the things in this stage of adolescence is the idea of peer acceptance. This is a real core motivator. This is why that friendship circle is so important. This is why they'll often turn to their friends for advice instead of their parents, because it is central to the way that their brain is wired.

They want to belong, they don't want to stand out. So when the majority of their peers are talking about university or college, they want to be involved in those conversations, they want to be part of the gang.

They want to be on that inner circle that has these communal hands, even if they're going off to different schools, they're still on the straight and narrow. They're still doing what the majority of young people are doing.

So in some cases, it's positive peer pressure to continue on into post-secondary. But in some cases, it can be just kind of keeping up with the Jones's teenage version about doing what is kind of the social norm. That social norm isn't just perpetuated by their friend circle in the sense of belonging.

It is the social norm in school conversations with guidance counsellors with high school teachers, all kind of revolve around the language of what school are you going to next year. What program are you taking?

The narrative that everyone continues on to higher ed right after grade 12, that there are lunchtime support groups for applications to post-secondary, scholarship support. So it's really part of that school culture to be, I want to say indoctrinated, but really part of that culture is setting up the students for what the school considers success and it's often getting them into a post-secondary institution.

So again, that's what they're hearing all around them is this idea of moving on to post-secondary, which is very, very difficult to stand up and say, no, that's not actually not the best choice for me.

When that's what they're hearing from their peers, that's what they're hearing from a lot of the adults in their life that hold positions of influence with them.

So really, really strong social norms there.

Michelle Dittmer - 07:15

These young people also are putting immense pressure on themselves and are really fearful of falling behind. This is what I hear all the time. I'm going to be behind when I take time off. I'm going to forget how to study and I'm going to be behind.

And that's very natural for them. You and I, with our adult parent experience, we're looking at them and saying, there's no such thing as falling behind. That's not a real thing.

You're going to have peers in the workforce that are five years old or ten years old, five years younger, fifty years old or whatever it might be.

But for these young people, for fourteen years, they have progressed with the same group of students based solely on birth year.

They have never, ever been out of phase with their peers. So it's what they know. It's what's comfortable.

There is a linear progression that goes step by step by step after grade one comes grade two. After grade five comes grade six. After grade eight comes grade nine. After grade twelve comes first year university or college.

And that's just what they are used to because they've never been exposed to inter-age relationships. That's just not part of what's going on for them.

Put yourself in a grade twelve shoe. Would they be caught dead being friends with somebody who is in grade ten? I don't think so. No way Jose.

And so this idea of going out of phase with their peers feels very, very strange and foreign. And like they are going to see all of their peers being launched into success and they're going to be left behind and doing nothing, not checking any boxes, not gaining any credits and not seeing what they have been conditioned to see as progress in their lives.

And the other thing about falling behind is they feel like they're ready to move on. They feel like grade twelve is a turning point. They are going to be a grown up after grade twelve. They are really hungry, some of them, for independence. Feeling more ready to be independent.

Now this isn't a hundred percent of the time. I know a couple, thirty year olds that are very happy to be living at home with their parents.

But this idea of financial independence, this idea of getting out of the house, of not having to abide by parents' rules, that is a natural evolution for adolescents.

But at the same time as they are thinking about independence, they also want to make their parents proud and meet their expectations.

And sometimes these are assumed expectations, assumed often wrong, that my parents are expecting me to go on to post-secondary. So while they want to be independent, they still want to make their parents proud.

Michelle Dittmer - 10:17

And the last thing that I'll say for young people and some of the perspective that they're bringing and why they may not be so open to entertaining the idea of a gap here is that they have really been conditioned, like so many of us, that to feel stress, to feel burnout, to be part of this hustle culture is the norm.

There is a social currency in being tired and staying up late to do your homework and feeling exhausted that there's almost a badge of honor that comes with that.

And so when you say to your kid, you're burnt out, you need a break, they're going to say, well, everybody's burnt out. I'm not special. I should just keep going on.

Michelle Dittmer - 11:03

So now we've looked at it from the parents perspective, what are parents seeing, but what is the pushback or what is some of that rationale that is happening for the young people who are saying, no, I just want to go on and get it over with. I want to get it done. I'm ready. Let's move forward.

But now we know that we really need to start to look at what can we do about this? We as parents are looking at our young person and saying, I can see what's coming, I can see down the road that this is going to end in a very destructive, very toxic way.

And I want to cut that off. I want to proactively take a gap year rather than have them move too quickly down this line and end in disaster.

So here's how you can start to approach this conversation and how you can warm them up to the idea of taking some time off, taking a gap year.

The first thing that you really need to do is to make sure that your kid knows explicitly what your parental guardianship, whatever your expectations are about post-secondary.

And I say explicitly because so many young people mistakenly assume that their parents want them to go to school right away.

So I really, really encourage you to have a very frank and very honest conversation with your young person.

But Michelle, what does that sound like?

Great question.

Let me give you some language here about what this might sound like. So I would talk to my young person, say, here, come on, come on over here, have a seat.

I just wanted to talk about what we as your parents, your caregivers, what we expect when it comes to life after high school for you.

So really, we as parents, we want you to be set up for success. And for every single person, that can look different.

So what your friends are doing might look different than what you need to be set up for success. We want to make sure that you get access to the resources, the training, the experience that's going to set you for success.

And for some people, that's college or university. But I want you to know that we're not expecting you to race through it or do it in the minimum amount of time.

We want you to know that life is complicated and that paths aren't always linear.

And we as your parents, we want you to know that it's okay if you want or need to take a break from being a student.

Maybe before you go into more school or in between your years, your mental health or insert the challenge here is more important to us and we want you to know that you can't you have a choice here that we are not expecting you to go on to college or university. If that's the right step, then that's great.

We want you to be successful and there's multiple ways to do that, including taking a break before you go on to that.

Here's where you say, what are your thoughts on that?

And leave some space for questions, responses, reactions, and then sum it up. Jump back in and say, okay, just to clarify. So just to be clear here, we're okay if you go to school next year, or if you wanted to take a gap year, that's totally cool with us as well.

So there you go, setting the stage really super clearly about what your expectations as parents or caregivers are.

Michelle Dittmer - 14:42

The next suggestion I have is to ask them to do a self assessment of their readiness.

So often parents can identify what some of those challenges are, what some of those weaknesses are, some of those areas where they can look at their young person and say, they're not ready in these areas.

But if we are to go and point them out to our young person, they're going to see that as an attack and they're going to immediately either turtle and or get defensive and start to try and prove you wrong.

Whereas when we give them the opportunity to do a self assessment, it gives them ownership, which shows that you as parent are trusting them to know themselves rather than you imposing your evaluations of them and their strengths.

And you'll be amazed and surprised that when you ask the right questions, these young people are very self aware and they know themselves pretty well.

They'll often identify some of the exact same things that you can see from your perspective.

Michelle Dittmer - 15:48

So when we look at readiness, I'm going to give you a list of six parts of readiness when it comes to post-secondary.

We do have a download on this and we will link it to the in the show notes.

So if you do want a copy of this in more detail, we'll also be doing another podcast on this shortly.

But let's talk about post-secondary readiness. So I said it comes into six parts.

The first is looking at academic readiness and this is often the only metric that is used. Do they have the grades to get into post-secondary? And while it is one of the factors, it is probably the only one that is assessed externally. The university or college will say, yay or nay, you are academically ready for this.

The rest comes into personal judgement and this has to do with you and your child and your family situation for the next five categories.

So academic readiness the second one is emotional readiness.

Are they able to self-regulate or control their reactions to strong emotions? And it's really key competency to that successful transition to adulthood is being emotionally ready.

We're all going to experience strong emotions. But think about how did your young person deal with heartbreak or failing their driver's test? Did they manage their emotions well? Were they able to do it in a constructive way? And how much support did they require from you as their parents in these situations? So are they emotionally ready? Are they emotionally trustworthy and independent?

The next one is social readiness. So they're going to be moving into a situation where they're going from big fish, little pond to little fish, big pond.

And they're going to have lots of new experiences and opportunities, both positive and negative. So does your teenager reliably know right from wrong? And can they stand up to peer pressure? Can they assess a risky situation and make good choice? Do you trust them? Do they trust themselves to make the right decision?

And if they do make the wrong decision because they're teenagers and because we all make wrong decisions, can they find the appropriate way out of those situations? Do they know who they can lean on and where they can get support that they need?

Thinking about social readiness, are they able to make new friends? These are all things that are part of that transition into post-secondary and skills that we want to assess for.

We can't have this conversation without talking about financial readiness and whether that is can you afford tuition and residence and all of those things, but also are they able to make a budget? Are they going to be able to take their student loans and decide that they should spend it on food instead of a new pair of sneakers?

Are they prepared to get part-time job during their school? Can they manage that? And I think that that's really important to know, can they afford school? And then can they use the funds that they have in appropriate ways?

We have to look at the readiness for life skills. So living under parents' roof comes with so many tips and tricks and support that keep that routine running. Somebody is going to wake them up if their alarm doesn't wake them. Somebody will pick up their laundry if they leave it. There's always food in the refrigerator. All of these things, do you need to remind them to go to bed? All of these things, do they have the time management life skills to be able to show up to things? Do they give enough time for activities? Are they going to make good use of the time that they have off with those breaks between classes?

Are they able to put together a meal plan that makes sense that includes proteins, carbohydrates, vegetables, fruits, all of those things? We want to make sure that they have those life skills.

And the last one I want to talk about is assessing for ownership. Are they engaged in what they're doing? Is that something that they are choosing to do? Did you as a parent have to fill out all their applications for them? Are you the one applying for scholarships?

They need to be able to take their experience seriously and show some ownership of it because if they're not, the second you as a parent aren't breathing down their neck. They're not going to show up for class.They're not going to hand in that assignment on time. So are they going to really have ownership over it.

So those are the things that you can have them do a self-assessment on and have a discussion around it because it can be really fruitful to have them identify where some of their gaps are and where they really think they're going to excel.

And that can really be a great springboard for saying, well, hey, if you're missing these skills, how can we help support you gaining these skills before you launch into post-secondary?

And perhaps you need a little bit more than between now and September to establish these skills and maybe a gap year might be a good choice.

Michelle Dittmer - 21:19

The other thing that is really helpful is to have your young person put together a: tentative plan.

You can call it the alternative future plan and do it just for fun because when we're deciding whether to take a gap year or not, we really need to be able to compare apples to apples.

And what that means is we have this known entity of more school. We know what it's like to have teachers and tests and assignments and all of those things are very familiar to us.

But then when we look at a gap year, it's just a blank page and we don't know what we would do with that time. So it's so easy to default into just not doing anything or to not see it as an option because what the heck would I do if I wasn't in school? Their whole identity revolves around being a student.

It's kind of like early retirement, right? You get a little bit lost in what to do. But helping them put together a plan so they can see that alternative future, which can be really, really helpful and can get them excited about something.

And when they put together that plan, have them identify anything that if they deferred their acceptance or if they didn't go first year university, what are they actually missing out on and what are some of the things that are just going to be delayed year?

So for example, are you going to miss out on your frosh week? No, you're not. You're just going to delay it one year. Are you going to miss out on your residence experience? Absolutely not. It's just going to be delayed one year.

So it can really help them put their experience of taking a gap year into perspective and into context that they're not actually losing anything by taking this time.

Michelle Dittmer - 23:03

The last thing I would suggest is that you show them examples of people who have taken gap years and have turned out okay.

So find somebody with similar interests or goals so that they can see themselves in that gap year persona.

Peer influence like we talked about before is so strong.

And it's really interesting that today's teens have a very broad definition of what peer means. So even influencers on social media or on YouTube, they see as their peers and hold what they say in very high regard.

Michelle Dittmer - 23:35

So a great resource that the Canadian Gap Year Association has is we have a real array of Gap Your Ambassadors on our YouTube channel and we will link to that in the show notes as well.

So subscribe to that channel and you can probably find somebody that your young person might relate to and show them some of their videos or have them do their own research on YouTube to find somebody who's taken a gap year and listen to their story.

Better yet, if you know someone who took gap year, have them interview them or have them take them out for coffee to learn about their experience, because knowing someone is such a bonus to help them understand how beneficial this time can be, because I've been doing this for 15 years and everyone looking back on their gap year says it was the best decision they could have made.

While looking forward, it looks really scary and intimidating. Looking backward, it is unanimous that it is a very, very wise decision.

So to have that message coming from somebody other than you the parent can be a really powerful tool to use.

And don't forget, you can always book a call with us at cangap to discuss what might be possible and to help evaluate if a gap year is a good idea for your kid.

So this can be a conversation with just you the parent or you and your young person.

We have so many great ideas up our sleeves that we can definitely find something that would appeal to your young person.

Whether that's Dungeons and Dragons campaign in a castle in England, or shooting GoPro videos while surfing in Costa Rica, or spiritual retreat India or language programs here in Canada, building a car in your driveway.

Really, there is no end to what is possible on a gap year and we want to be the ones to help you on that journey and to connect the dots and to find those programs.

Now for you as parents throughout the year, we host special events for parents to support you on your journey alongside your teen. We know that your journey can be filled with lots of bumps and challenges along the way and we don't want you to feel alone.

So come out to one of our upcoming events. You can check them out at

Again, we'll put a link in the show notes for you, but we would love to see you come out.

You can get to know some other parents who have been on this journey who are currently on this journey and not feel quite so alone. And we would love to get you the support that you need.

So my friends, that is the end of our episode today and I hope to see you in one of our parent support sessions.

Have a wonderful day.

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