Into the Unknown: High School Graduation Stress

woman sits in the mountains giving the peace sign looking happy after anxiety treatment in Franklin TN from anxiety therapist Cody Higgs 37067

This is the day your kid has been waiting for. School’s out forever (at least the K-12 thing is done). They may have been talking about this time for the past 13 years. It’s the next step, and the rest of their life is about to begin. But sometimes there is graduation stress.

How Scary is it Really?

Have you ever jumped off the high dive? Been swimming in the ocean? Gone skydiving?! There are lots of exciting, daring things that we spend so much time looking forward to. Then we get there, and it’s SO. SCARY. We’re standing there on the edge, full of anxiety, paralyzed with fear, because we have no idea what happens when we step off the ledge of comfort into the unknown.

Usually there are the people saying “Come on, it’s going to be fun!” or “I’ve done it before, and it’s going to be the experience of your life. You’re going to love it!” That doesn’t change the fact that 30 feet is a long way down to the pool. It doesn’t make sharks disappear from the ocean. It doesn’t give 100% security that your parachute is going to open. No matter what anyone says, no matter their experiences – the person doing the thing still has their own experience. Scary is scary.

So, your 17, or 18, or 19-year-old is standing there on that ledge, getting ready to do something that you have 100% confidence in them to do (I’ll also acknowledge that you may have been looking forward to this, or you may have been dreading this since the day they were born. That’s a different conversation for a different day, though.) They’re saying they’re scared. Or they’re stalling. Or they’re acting differently. Something is off. Graduation stress may come along for a lot of reasons.

Lasting Effects

That’s a big, scary world out there, and it’s filled with a lot of unknowns. Even when teens and early 20-somethings are still living with and/or getting support from parents, they’re still in this weird place between high school and just getting started with the post-high school stuff like college or starting a career path (or feeling like they should be doing those things). It’s like going through that 13-18 year old stage all over again. It’s tough for parents, too. Do you treat your kid like the kid you can see? Like the adult they legally are?

Most years in the Spring, I start hearing things like

  • “I’m so scared, and I don’t know what I’m going to do with the rest of my life”
  • “What if I suck at college?”
  • “My parents want me to be a doctor (chemical engineer, etc.). I don’t know if I can/want to do that. What do I do?!”
  • “I’m going to suck at this.”

Having doubts, anxiety, or questioning choices about whatever path they choose in life is pretty normal. However, when that graduation stress causes big feelings or big questions that start to cause what you’d consider extra distress, it’s good to perk up your ears a little extra and get a more detailed idea of what’s going on. Those thoughts can follow all the way into and through college.

What Can I Do About It?

So how do you keep that graduation stress level “reasonable” or help your kids feel better if that stress has already set in at a really high level? There are a few really useful things you can try.

  • Normalize the anxiety. Let them know it’s perfectly fine to feel nervous about taking the next step in their life. This is certainly a big deal, no matter what they’re choosing to do!
  • If they’re not sure what they want to do, career interest assessments can be so helpful. A lot of times, university career development centers will provide these assessments and help students understand their results and discuss possible majors and career possibilities – all for free. Here’s an example from my alma mater.
  • Listen to your kids about what they’re interested in. Personally, I think it would be really fun for my son to study counseling and be my office mate one day, but he may not want to. Give them an environment where they’re comfortable telling you what their aspirations are – even if that may not match your aspirations for them.
  • Make clear to them that their worth doesn’t depend on getting a million dollars worth of scholarships or becoming the first person to perform brain surgery on the moon.
  • College counseling inside of school, depending on the services that your school offers, can be a great service, as well. If your school doesn’t provide this, there are other organizations outside of school that do.
  • Sometimes the stress can become so great that seeking outside help may be useful. This is something I wind up helping a lot of teenagers with – sometimes as early as 8th or 9th grade.

No matter how you decide to handle things, it’s important to just check in with your kids. A simple “How are things?” or “I’m always here if you need me” can be really helpful to keep those lines of communication open. Even if they don’t gush about every problem in life, it’s good to let them know they can. It will make a difference to them, whether they let you know or not.

To sum up, I realize it can be tough to know how to do this stuff. Your teenager, your young adult didn’t get a manual for this, and neither did you. If you ever feel like you need some extra help, feel free to reach out any time. This is what I do.

Thanks for reading.