By Robin Noble
For Drew, junior year in high school was a non-stop stress storm.
A varsity basketball player, he practiced five mornings and afternoons every week, with games in the mix. His family hosted a foreign exchange student. He participated in Math Bowl. His girlfriend broke up with him. And his backpack was bulging with three or more hours of nightly homework.
“I think it was pretty typical and maybe not as hard as some of my friends who took mostly AP classes,” Drew said. Now a few months into his senior year, he is beginning to see the light at the end of the college application tunnel. “I’m glad I worked really hard but I wouldn’t want another year like that.”
Like no other grade in the K-12 universe, junior year seems to be the most anxiety inducing. There are about 3.5 million high school juniors in the U.S. today, and about 67 percent of them will apply to college next year. A lot of the pressure comes in knowing that this is the last year of record for upcoming college applications.
But it’s really much more than that. Junior year represents a confluence of effort, emotion and uncertainty at a time when students are waking up to new and sometimes difficult realities about the world around them. It’s also when teens become irresistibly curious about all kinds of shenanigans. Junior year is a defining juncture in the bigger journey of growing up.
As parents, we observe this time through a broader lens; we understand choices and consequences. We feel awe and distress. We want to intervene, bring relief, or push even harder. Mostly, we want to help.
I talked with some college-bound juniors to get their take on ways parents can actually be helpful. Here’s what they had to say:
Of all the responses to the question, “How can parents help make your junior year less stressful?” this one recurred most. Teasing out a better articulation, I understood these students to mean that they want less interviewing and advice, and more acknowledgement and support of their chosen path.
I heard a lot of appreciation for parents — many of whom work full time — who do what they can to ease life day to day: having good food at the ready, being available to drive, helping with scheduling, doing some laundry. The students I talked to didn’t sound entitled about any of these things — they seemed truly grateful.
The teens I spoke with felt strongly on this point. “Please don’t ask me what activities my friends are doing and don’t interview them when you see them,” one junior said. Inquiries about friends’ activities and class loads can convey an implicit comparison. Junior year is not a time for comparisons.
Students may be withdrawn, grouchy, short, sad or overwhelmed. The students I spoke with wanted their parents to not view irritability as a reason for panic. “I’m probably procrastinating or just tired. I don’t want to talk it all out with my mom,” one student told me. Of course, if you see signs of serious depression, you should intervene.
“I know a girl whose mom insisted she start volunteering to read with little kids. She doesn’t even like little kids!” one teen told me. Encourage your student to work hard but remember: junior year is not a time for disingenuous resume building. Admissions reps tell us that last minute or out-of-character add-ons to try and game the process are more likely to detract. The bottom line? Support the student you have, not the student you want. Encouraging authenticity may be the ultimate solution to junior year stress.
Helping people is difficult. Helping teenagers can feel impossible. I’m reminded of Reverend Maclean in Norman Maclean’s masterpiece A River Runs Through It, and will leave you with his thought:
For it is true we can seldom help those closest to us. Either we don’t know what part of ourselves to give or, more often than not, the part we have to give is not wanted. And so it is those we live with and should know who elude us. But we can still love them — we can love completely without complete understanding.
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