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What to Do When Your Teen Isn't Ready For College

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Gap year conversation

In high school, I was the kid parents would kill to have. I didn’t party. I didn’t ditch class. I cried freshman year because I couldn’t find room 113 and missed my chance to make a good first impression. I was usually ahead in class, so some of my teachers let me knit sweaters during lectures. (Yes, you read that right. I really did knit sweaters in 10th Grade Honors Literature.) Yet, as graduation approached, I realized something. I was absolutely terrified of what came next. I was a bright, talented, straight-A student, but there was one thing I was decidedly not: ready.

Academic readiness and emotional readiness are not the same thing

Being smart doesn’t mean you’re ready for the next step -- and there are plenty of reasons a 17-year-old might not feel ready. Going to college can feel like you’re deciding your entire future before you’ve even figured out your taste in music, how to open a bank account, or what you want in life. A kid who isn’t ready for college can spook parents, but they shouldn’t. A student who isn’t ready simply wants to make sure they choose their path forward carefully. There is no perfect path, only the perfect path for your unique child.

College isn’t happening this year...so what next?

Despite how it may feel, if your high school senior has no plans for next September, it isn’t the end of the world. They have options, and so do you. A gap year doesn’t have to be scary. When done right, a year away from full-time school can become a productive, enriching experience that prepares your teen for the next step. Before you start imagining life with your future 35-year-old crashing in the basement, four simple steps can help you and your teen tackle the future as a team.

1. Meet them where they are: You have a teenager, so you know how difficult (impossible, really) it is to force a teen to do anything. Resist the urge to forge their college applications and take a moment to accept where they are in this moment. Whether they’re thinking of heading to community college, getting a job, or backpacking across Europe, don’t fight it. You can even learn about gap year opportunities to get a sense of the options they may have available, from volunteer experiences to language immersion.

By respecting their feelings and ideas, you’ll create a foundation for open, honest communication. Plus, they’ll be much more receptive to your influence when you’re not looking at them like they’re absolutely insane.

2. Don’t allow your own fear to magnify theirs: Recognize this moment for what it is: an opportunity to show your teen they can turn to you for the support and guidance they desperately need. Think back to when your kid was a toddler: When they were angry, frustrated, or afraid, you were the calm to their storm. While their emotions have a different face, your teen’s need for reassurance hasn’t disappeared.

No matter how stressed out their choice might make you feel, remember that you’re still capable of being their safe space. Instead of approaching them in a state of anger, criticism, or panic, just breathe. Show your child you are there for them unconditionally. Remind them just how much you believe in them. Though few will admit it, teens still look to their parents for confidence. Prove it’s not going anywhere.

3. Figure out the “why”: Are they struggling academically? Socially? Emotionally? Are there any anxiety, depression, or other potentially silent mental health issues that need to be cared for? Do they feel unprepared to live on their own? Are they concerned about tuition? Are they just plain clueless about what they want to pursue? There are hundreds of reasons why a young adult may not feel ready for college. Figuring out what your teen’s reasons are can give you a clearer picture of how to move forward.

4. Make a plan you can both agree on: The last step might be the toughest, but few teens are equipped to define their path unassisted. Take their opinions into account and work with them to establish clear goals and guidelines for the upcoming year. If they’re going to community college, will they need to attend full-time? If not, do they need to work part-time to contribute to their own expenses? If they’re hoping to travel abroad, how are they going to do it affordably? If they have no ideas at all, start by brainstorming their skills and interests and exploring internship or part-time study options. TeenLife listings can help you research gap year programs and volunteer opportunities to help you learn about some of the choices available.

While sitting down for an open conversation is a great foundation, accept that you’re not going to figure out the next 10 years in one sitting. Today’s planning session is the first of many heart-to-hearts. With a little faith and a whole lot of patience, your guidance can (and will) help your child to come into their own and build path that will propel them to bigger, better things. Good luck, moms and dads! Your kid’s got this covered, and you do too.

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Brittany Alexandra Sulc is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles, California. While she handles content writing for numerous websites and businesses, her passion is for relatable, humorous, and painfully honest writing. When she's not frantically typing, you can find her drinking coffee and reading books with her two cats and one small human.