By now, we are all tired of hearing about COVID-19. We’re all wishing we could go back to normal, forget this ever happened and get on with our lives. While this is true for everybody, wishing to get past this, the feelings of wanting to just forget about it can feel different for those who have lost out on major life milestones because of the pandemic.
My heart goes out to all of the 2020 graduating classes. These are my people. This is who I serve on a good day – folks who don’t know what the best steps forward are, students who want more time to figure things out, or people who feel they need a unique experience before diving into post-secondary. With the way things are trending within education and COVID-19, my prediction is that many people who were part of the 2020 graduating class will be taking gap years, but for a whole new set of reasons.
While I don’t have a crystal ball to see how everything will play out in the future, I am aware of how families are struggling with the loss of senior year right now. I know how hard it can be to find the right way to support your graduate, so I’ve put together five tips to help you get your kid through this challenging time. You can listen to the tips through our podcast or keep reading.
Tip #1: Acknowledge their Achievement
Graduating high school is a major milestone – it marks the transition from adolescence into early adulthood. It is also the first public recognition of their achievements. Many young people celebrate milestone birthdays – like sixteen, eighteen, or even some celebrating nineteen in high school – but those are simply recognition of having stayed alive long enough to reach that age. Graduation is the first major merit-based milestone where they are being celebrated for their hard work.
As a parent, you can play a key role in this acknowledgement. Spend some time thinking of all of the things they have accomplished, and you’ll have a list of things you can celebrate about your graduate! Ask yourself:
What have they overcome?
What have they achieved?
What physical, personal and interpersonal skills have they developed?
Answering these questions gives you a great jumping point for celebrating their accomplishments. The next step is to figure out the best way to communicate these points to your young person. Base the recognition on what you know your graduate would appreciate. You could do write a letter you write outlining their accomplishments, a private conversation with you and your teen, or a funny video outlining your thoughts. You know your kid best so pick something that will resonate with them.
It’s also important to take this to the next level as well. The graduation ceremony is a public affair. Graduates are congratulated by extended family members, teachers, friends and many people that they respect. See how you can include other loved ones in the celebration – try organizing a group Zoom call that everybody can jump on and share praises for the graduate.
No matter the delivery or who is involved, sharing these thoughts will make a world of difference to your graduate and while it will not replace a graduation ceremony, it will provide some of the emotional reinforcement that they need to develop into the adults they were meant to be.
Tip #2: Provide Higher-Level Responsibilities at Home
Let’s be clear. This does NOT mean give them more chores or ask them to care for their younger siblings. These shifts may have the opposite effect and actually push them away.
After four years of “putting in your dues,” grade twelve students are usually at the top of the social ladder. They’re getting increased leadership opportunities as captains, presidents, leads in school plays or as role models for the younger students. By missing out on these experiences, graduates will be deprived of being recognized for their leadership abilities and lose out on the opportunities to sharpen those skills.
Try to provide these similar opportunities at home. Invite your graduate into more adult-like conversations as appropriate. For example, if you’re revisiting the monthly budget during COVID-19, invite your graduate into the conversation. Ask their opinions and teach them new skills at the same time. Moving into more mature responsibilities and conversations will show them that you believe in them and their ability to take on new challenges. It will show them that you are starting to see them as more of an adult and less of a child.
Tip #3 Fostering Peer Connection
In the adolescent years, peers play a strong role in a young person’s identity, their values, and how they see the world. Asking them to distance themselves from their friends means way more to them than freeing up their social calendar – it can be a small identity crisis.
While they may be connected through social media, this doesn’t completely fill what they would get from in-person connections. Their social media posts are curated, polished and usually only show the highlights of life or exaggerations of the truth. The raw conversations around struggles, challenges and personal issues are often only shared in person.
Make sure you’re encouraging your young person to stay connected to friends. Encourage Zoom calls, groups chats on House Party, or get oldschool with letters in the mail. Maintaining those connections will help to stabilize their social experience as well as help to ground their own identity.
Tip #4: Ask About Their Friends
Peers are so important that it warrants a follow up tip! When you’re making a point to ask how your teen’s friends are also coping with the situation, you show them that you do understand what is important to them, but you’re also opening up the opportunity for some deeper conversations.
By bringing up your teen’s friends, you’re opening up the chance for them to talk about it with you. Your graduate may be noticing different traits or values come up in their friends that they aren’t used to seeing. Maybe they’re feeling closer or more distant from certain friends and might need help processing why. By asking about their friends, you can start to have these conversations that highlight your kid’s own value system while helping them navigate their changing relationships.
Being pulled away from their communal identity is an excellent (albeit forced) exercise in finding their true identity. Many students who choose to take a gap year talk excitedly about the experience of getting to redefine themselves outside of their high school environment. What are their true values or interests now that they are not influenced by their high school context? This time of reflection can be extremely valuable in helping your graduate explore these questions.
Tip #5: Ask Gentle Questions About their Future
Grade 12 is a gateway into the next chapter of a graduate’s life. On a normal day, this time of transition feels like a mix of excitement and anxiety and stress, as teens make a pretty big life decision. This year, multiply that feeling by 100. The uncertainty that exists around what the future even looks like could send anybody, including those who had it all figured out, into a spiral.
Humans don’t like uncertainty – we avoid it as much as possible because we like to feel safe and secure. Teens are no different. Your grad might have their head down and be focusing on getting through day by day, the next week, or even already looking at what the fall semester is going to look like. No matter where they fall on that spectrum, they are in the right place for them. Remember that when you start these conversations. Pushing them beyond their comfort zone right now may push them away – and now more than ever, they need connection.
Your role as a parent is to keep the conversation going through gentle questions and reminders without pushing too hard. Your role here is to guide them through this process. If you need a little help to see what this might look like, start with:
Have you thought about how you would like to celebrate being done high school?
This ties back to the first tip, but it also helps them to start to look beyond their current situation in a very positive way. It brings back the dreamer and reinforces the idea that we will be coming out of this eventually. Once they are comfortable looking to the end of their high school career, you can ask them what their ideal situation is for next September. This will help you to learn about what they are looking forward to, and what is going to make that post-secondary experience the most impactful it can be. Once you start discussing, here are some questions you can ask:
What information do you need to be confident in moving forward?
What else do you need to feel good about moving forward?
Although these are nuanced versions of the same question, it highlights that we are waiting on a lot of information to come from our high schools and our post-secondaries as well as our public health departments. It also highlights that there are other factors that play into the “readiness” of stepping into post-secondary. Below is an example.
I need to know if the program will be online or in-person: I don’t want to go if it is online and I can’t have a frosh week and live in residence. This shows that they need more information before their decision is made.
I don’t feel ready to take on university-level calculus: I am not learning very well during COVID-19 online learning and I think it will negatively affect me in university. This is more of a feeling, and shows that they made need more time to build on their skills before heading to post-secondary
Communication is Key
The underlying theme of these tips stays the same – having good communication with your kid. Some of you may already feel there with your teen, while others may be actively working on it.
I highly recommend How to Talk So Teens Will Listen and Listen So Teens Will Talk by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish, for whichever boat you feel you are in. This book is done in cartoons and is a very easy read with so many really amazing tips. My copy is full of highlighted sections with sticky notes all over it – you’ll come back to it time and time again.
Above everything else, remember that there is no right way to be doing this. No one has done this before, and all we can do is try to do our best.
Here is a vote of confidence from me to you – the fact that you are reading this means you care about your kid and that is all that they really need right now. Parents, you are killing it!
Next week, our podcast will be focusing on making post-secondary decisions based on values, even during such uncertain times. Make sure to subscribe to the podcast now so you don’t miss out!