Although I already have been through senior year with one child, who is in her sophomore year in college, I think a bit of amnesia must have occurred (sort of like having a baby) as I find myself with child #2, a high school senior, almost surprised by the high levels of stress and the ongoing flurry of emotions that accompany the year that marks the end of a very important life chapter. Now that I am almost half way through my oldest son's final year of high school, I have had a few epiphanies and have concluded that the challenges of your child’s senior year are two-fold. Firstly, once your child finishes their insanely stressful junior year, many of them do a premature victory dance and declare either in their head or out loud that they are DONE. They go through their summer psyched about their last year of high school and can’t wait to slide their way through senior year. But here is the catch, unless they have scored a perfect 36 on their ACT, visited or extensively researched all of the colleges they are interested in applying to, and finished all of their college applications, they are far from done.
First semester senior year is by far one of the most demanding times for students, and because we live in "helicopter" times, it feels very stressful for parents as well. College applications are due, which means the kids actually have to make real decisions about where they are going to apply (which is no small task for many). And once the list is made, many kids (and parents) are completely flabbergasted by the amount of work involved in the application process and in writing the essays required for various schools.
Another biggie is the standardized test issue. Many students, both of my older children included, do not get the score they need/want until the fall of their senior year. So, for my son, his first semester senior year consisted of staying on top of his challenging course load (reminder: almost all colleges want to see a student’s first semester grades), playing a fall sport, trying to figure out where he wanted to go to college, where he could get into, filling out college applications, visiting and researching colleges, dealing with the baseball recruiting process (which is a story in and of itself), and studying for the ACTs. It was grueling, and he truly did not know what hit him. He was blindsided, despite my attempted warnings, by the heaviness he felt in trying to manage all of it.
And the second piece of the fold that also takes students and parents by surprise (yes, even the second time around), is the roller coaster of emotions that arise over the course of senior year. For starters, there are college application/acceptance/rejection discussions happening everywhere you turn for students and parents alike. There is the elation for those kids who get accepted early decision or early action and for the athletes who sign their letters of intent to play their sport in college. But a few lockers down, there are kids dealing with the sadness and disappointment of receiving news that their dreams of attending and/or playing a sport for a certain college will not be realized. It is a difficult time for the kids to navigate the waters of being happy for themselves and each other when good news comes in, and also being sensitive and supportive to those who must alter their dreams. And then there are the many students who do not apply early, or do, but get deferred from one or more colleges, and live in the land of “I don’t know where I am going next year, and please don't ask me again” for most of their senior year, which can be a very uncomfortable place to live for both students and parents.
And the last piece that often takes kids and parents by surprise is the mixed bag of emotions that accompany this year of “lasts,” some of which my daughter beautifully described in her letter to her younger brother, (which I also hope to address in another post). There is no way for our kids to prepare themselves for the feelings that arise when looking at the reality of leaving the only life they know—their family, friends, school, house, room. And a lot of times, they can’t even find the words to talk about it. It’s just too big and too scary. And for the parent, gulp, it feels like a lump in your throat, a dull ache, a peeling off a bandaide ever so slowly. It’s anticipation mixed with slight panic, signaling the need to make some significant internal adjustments before the inevitable gutting of the heart ceremony that takes place when you stand in front of their dorm room and give them that final “I’m setting you free” hug.
So, as easy and natural as it is to be swept away by the strong tide of the senior year stressors, try to remember to allow the tide to bring you back in. Right now I can see clearly through the waves that my son is getting ready. Ready to move on. And I am getting ready to let him go while savoring the lasts. And when I feel my heart twisting into sadness and bracing itself for the sting of the separation, I try to remind myself that senior year is not so much as an end but a transition to a new and exciting beginning.