Tia was a bright and intelligent student in her final year of grade 12. She began seeing me because, as she told me through choked back tears, “everybody seems to know what they are doing, except me.”
Her parents had become increasingly worried because Tia lacked any direction, passion, or purpose for her life. They starting seeing lots of differences in her behaviour throughout her grade 12 years. Her grades were suffering and her motivation was very low for almost everything. She often isolated herself from her parents and became teary, angry, or annoyed when they tried to talk to her about finding a direction or plan. Tia also became increasingly obsessed with managing her online presence. She would stay up until all hours of the night carefully curating her Instagram account and Snap stories; she would also get consumed at looking at what her friends and peers were doing. Her sense of self was weak, and she had shared with me in a vulnerable moment that getting attention from ‘friends’ online was the only place she felt good about herself. Her fear underneath her picture-perfect facade was that she wasn’t good enough; no one really knew that underneath it all she felt lost, confused, and full of anxiety.
Tia’s story is like so many of the stories I sit within my practice as a Therapist helping navigate teens into emerging adulthood. The transition from teen to emerging adulthood (which is the development stage that spans from age 17 to 25) can be a difficult journey, and I can almost feel the weight and pressures of that journey with each teen who walks into my office this time of year.
Here is typically what I see in my practice with teens during their final months of high school:
- Some teens are walking through my door with triumphant smiles. They share that they got into their program of choice. And then they settle into the couch and into the space we create together and share that they are hesitant about accepting the offer. And they question, “Is this really the best choice for me?”
- Some teens are walking through my door with defeated faces and are full of worry. They share that they have not heard anything from their prospective programs or schools of choice. They share with sadness and fear that friends have heard back from school, but they have yet to hear anything.
- Some teens are walking through the doors with so much sadness. They didn’t get into any of their top school or program of choice. They will often share “I got an alternate option offered by the school, but that is just because they felt bad for me. I am a reject. I am so embarrassed”. Some teens share, “I am too embarrassed to even tell my parents I didn’t get in. I know they really wanted me to go to this school.”
- Some teens walk through, just like Tia did one rainy afternoon, sharing that all their friends are hearing back from schools. These teens’ perceptions are that they are “the only ones who aren’t going to University or College next year”. They feel disconnected, anxious, and sad that they aren’t measuring up to their friends.
If you are parenting a teen going through any range of these experiences you may be feeling overwhelmed or anxious yourself. Every parent has hopes and dreams for their child and it can be very sad and even worrisome when you don’t see your child reaching their full potential. Countless parents have told me “Michelle, I just thought things would be different.” Parenting a teen who is emerging into adulthood can be filled with lots of grief. Parents will find themselves grieving the loss of the vision they held for their child. Giving yourself compassion and space to feel all your own feelings will open you to help your teen manage and navigate their own feelings.
My Tips for parents:
- Take a deep breath and take the pressure off YOURSELF. Parents have invested countless resources and love into supporting their teen through high school. It is okay to disappointed. Angry. Sad. Anxious. And anything in between. Be kind yourself and seek support for your feelings from a trusted friend, loving partner, or Therapist. You will always be a guiding light in your teen’s life, but the developmental task of emerging adulthood is to connect with one’s own guiding light. So, take the pressure off yourself and instead find ways to help your teen connect with their own wisdom. Trust me, they can be SO wise.
- Try not to compare. Comparing is a normal part of our human experience and culture. During this time parents and teens alike will compare their journey to others who seem more/less successful. It is important to bring a gentle awareness to times you are comparing your teen to others and help your teen to see each journey into emerging adulthood as unique.
- Help name the feelings but don’t fix. Parents are wired to attune to our child’s uncomfortable feelings. And it makes parents terribly uncomfortable to see our children uncomfortable. This is just as true for a parent who is parenting a teen through emerging adulthood. When they are sad, anxious, frustrated, angry, or any emotion in between just help them label that feeling and don’t fix it. A good place to start may be to say “Look, I know you are angry. I can see all the worries and pressures you are carrying these days. I know you have what it takes to get through this time. But I am always here. If you just want to vent, I am here. If you need help, I am here too.” Allow them to come to you with their feelings, and if they are really isolating themselves think of something fun and playful to do together (think… road trips, dinners, shopping/window shopping, hikes, ice cream dates). Keep these light, playful, and release any expectations you have for the day. Just be together.
- Practice gratitude for all their hard work and accomplishments. When we are coping with stress, anxiety or depression, our brains are wired to be more negative; we become bombarded with negative thoughts and self-talk. Everything can quickly become something to complain about. It is therefore so important to help your teen stay aligned with the positive things this stage of life brings too. Even if it brings eye-rolls and sighs, share with them how proud you are that they are still trying to work hard during their final stretch. Try writing a letter, text, or email about how proud you are that they are working on finding the right path for themselves. Make sure they know that even though they may not exactly where they want to be in life at this moment, you are super proud and know that they have the skills and strength to find their way.
- Visit each school (even if it is for the 3rd time!) and feel the ‘vibes’. It is SO important that your teen likes and feels comfortable on and off campus. As hard as it may be, allow your teen to feel-out the school not just for the program but also for the lifestyle. Go eat on and off campus with them. Visit the library, the lecture halls, and the dorm rooms (you will need to book a tour for this). Most importantly, allow your teen to walk around the campus for a few hours by themselves or with a friend to see what it is like. Teens are amazingly intuitive at feeling-out what is a good environment for them to thrive. As one teen shared with me the other day, “The campus just felt right.”
- Encourage “big picture” and holistic thinking. Getting into school, or not getting school, is just one little step or moment along their very long and exciting journey into adulthood. Holistic thinking is all about helping your teen bring awareness to all the little steps and moments they are taking in between and around the big ones. Maybe they didn’t get into school, but they may be taking a year to upgrade marks, get work experiences, volunteer, and have fun and grow a little more. These are all great steps forward.
Tia is now completing the last course of her 5th year in high school. That little extra time gave her some space to develop and mature. With the support of her parents and myself, she began to
- set realistic goals and expectations,
- soften her critical-voice which told her she wasn’t good enough,
- learnt to light her own fire and develop passion and purpose,
- connect and find friends that would support her journey in a real way,
- and find a strong sense of self as an emerging adult.
She came to me one recent sunny Spring day with a huge smile, “Michelle, I got in! I did it! ” We celebrated together as she shared her vibrant plans for her first year of college. I truly believe, no matter what challenges or struggles Tia faces along her journey in emerging adulthood, that she will be okay. Tia is resilient. She has her wings. And she is just one of the hundreds of beautifully-resilient butterflies I have had the honor to know.
Michelle Brans MACP RP
Clinical Director & Registered Psychotherapist
Over the past decade, I have helped hundreds of families and teens navigate and launch successfully into adulthood. In today’s busy world, teens are finding it more and more difficult to stay focused and aligned with their goals, and ultimately their true-selves. My specialization is in helping teens & emerging adults (ages 16-25) develop resiliency to overcome: stress, anxiety, depression, disordered eating, self-harm, addictive behaviour, school challenges, conflict with parents, and failure to launch. My holistic approach combines psycho-education, emotion-focused therapy, mindfulness, cognitive behaviour therapy, dialectical behaviour therapy, yoga, and lifestyle counselling.