"Senioritis is a common diseasebut it's rarely fatal." These words of wisdom were delivered with a chuckle from a friend who happens to be a high school counselor.
"The afflicted aren't easy to love, yet they greatly need our understanding," my friend continued. "Their behavior may seem like the problem, but it's only a symptom. The real problem is their fear of growing up, facing changes, and the impending loss of childhood."
Fear of facing changes and impending lossessounds a lot like the emotions of midlife, I mused.
While teenagers look forward to finishing high school, they also feel frightened. Graduation marks the official end of childhood and will end the structured, predictable way of life they've always known. Graduation means facing a future that looks exciting but also feels insecure. As they get closer to graduation, our teenagers may act out their fears in various forms of negative behavior that they don't even understand.
How can we help them through this transition? First, we can think about growing up from their point of view, remembering our own feelings and fears during adolescence. Second, we can encourage them to recognize, acknowledge and grieve their impending losses.
What will they lose?
My conversation with my friend challenged me to consider the losses a senior faces. There's the loss of childhood, which means the loss of protection, innocence and a relatively carefree way of life. There's the loss of security and predictability within the context of a familiar life pattern, and there's the loss of place within the family (being the older brother or oldest child).
There's the physical loss of home, which includes the loss of a bedroom and its privacy, the loss of access to a car, and the loss of a refrigerator and cupboard stocked by someone else.
There's the loss of a high school class that for four years carefully wove itself together through shared experiences like football victories, grief over the death of a classmate in a car accident, and the common responses to the quirks of a principal or popular teacher. Seniors also face the loss of their circle of friendsand their place within that strongly bonded group. They will miss the comfort of knowing and being known, and face great grief in losing their sense of belonging. There's even the loss of accountability and guidance as the senior begins to cope with this fact: "The person in charge of me is me!"
So we shouldn't be surprised when our seniors act out their mixed-up feelings in confusing ways. From their viewpoint, their carefully constructed world is crumbling apart. During the spring before graduation, my son Derek seemed like a sleep-and-eat machine, silently moving through the house as if he needed to detach himself from personal involvement. Other times, he lingered at the kitchen counter as if he wanted to talk. I wanted to help him talk about his feelings, so I asked some unthreatening questions.
"Are you scared when you think about leaving your friends and moving out of your room here?" I asked. "What's the best part of being a senior? What's the hardest part?"
"The best part about being a senior is knowing I'm almost done with high school," he said, "but that's also the hardest part." He told me about driving home from school and hearing a song that reminds him of autumn. He'd suddenly realized how totally different and unfamiliar the next fall would feel. "I got this pain in my stomach and thought I'd have to pull over because I felt sick," he said.
Understanding Their Feelings
How do adolescents act out those confusing push-pull feelings? Some get lazy and quit doing homework or start cutting classes. Now that their college applications are completed, they decide to take it easy. High school counselors believe some seniors even subconsciously sabotage their ability to graduate by cutting classes and avoiding homework, because failure will bring a last-minute reprieve from the challenge of moving on and facing the losses graduation brings.