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The Longest, Shortest Summer Before College

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The Longest, Shortest Summer Before College

For many newly minted high school graduates—and their families—summer is here.

For the majority of these exhausted and elated young people—and their parents—the next big thing, college or gap year activity looms a stretch of time away. First, there’s summer.

“This is a complicated time for both parents and kids,” says Ellen Goldsmith M.S.W. “It’s an in-between time, something that doesn't happen very often in our lives."

Emotionally, it’s a highly charged time. “For parents, there’s pride and excitement, but also a great deal of sadness, a sense of loss, and some fear,” she says. “It’s a little bit like anticipating your first child starting kindergarten; you don’t know how it’s going to feel. You do know you have to work on letting go.”

She continues, “For kids, there’s excitement and anxiety and sadness. The more people, and really, I mean parents, acknowledge the mix of these feelings, the more awareness of how strong these emotions are, the easier it can be to get through the experience of waiting for this transition to the next phase. Everyone is anticipating the upcoming separation.”

Psychologist Margaret Miller concurs: “It’s a big developmental milestone to finish high school and move on to college or whatever comes next. It is likely to be especially meaningful with the first child and then with the last, the empty nest.” She adds, “It’s important for parents to openly acknowledge their sadness, that sense they will miss their child, without the information burdening the child. And by acknowledging the mixture of emotions, the parent models for the child that it’s okay not to be solely excited.”

Goldsmith emphasizes that the unknown brings up so many feelings, and she says, “We have a large capacity to hold the whole spectrum; it’s all normal, the sadness and the excitement. We have to remind our children of this as they experience these emotions in waves—and so do we."

How best to fill this uncertain period of time?

There are a few considerations. Goldsmith says, “It can be a nice moment for a hardworking kid to enjoy a respite, to slow down, to spend time with friends about to go off to their own new things.” Miller offers additional considerations. “For many kids, financial realities mean that getting a job in order to save some money is imperative. Even without financial pressures, a job or internship can be helpful during this period. Too much unstructured time isn’t always the best thing for adolescents.”

Similarly, parents and kids may have negotiate how to create a little more leeway than during high school and still maintain some household rules so that everyone can agree upon the balance between freedom, respect and responsibility. Again, Miller reminds parents that the more discussion about these issues, the better.

Lastly, Miller suggests, “It’s important to families to try to spend some time together. Everyone needs that time.”

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