Understanding Graduating Seniors

Past   Present   FutureNo Wonder they’re Confused: Graduating seniors feel everything at once.

By Barbara F. Meltz Boston Globe

When she’s not blinking back tears, Arianna Thompson’s dark eyes are so full of intensity it’s as if she is trying to soak up the essence of her four best friends seated around the table with her.That would be one way, anyway, to have them with her for each second of these waning days of high school and for the beginning of college.“The thought of next year, of leaving and not being together, it’s just terrifying,” Thompson groans, tears flowing freely.  “You guys…” Claudia Pafumi on one side of her and Kate Silver-Heilman on the other give a brief squeeze to her outstretched hands.They and two others have been best friends for their last two years at the Cambridge Rindge and Latin School.

For high school students, that’s a long time, and time is the villain now.  It’s collapsing in on them.  Graduation is four weeks away. How can this be? It was just yesterday that the senior year was beginning, that all of high school was beginning….“Bittersweet is what describes the last month,’ says psychologist Marsha Levy-Warren, associate director of the Institute for Child, Adolescent, and Family in New York City.So does peripatetic. Not only is a teen a moving target that’s hard to keep physical track of, but his or her emotions are as unpredictable as a pinball’s next move. One minute, she’s experiencing the bitterness: “I don’t want to leave!” The next, she’s tasting what’s sweet: “I can’t wait to go, I am so done with this place!” One minute, you’re the best mother ever and will you pleaseplease make his favorite meal. The next, you’re the worst adult on the planet.

The problem is, graduating seniors don’t know where to position themselves emotionally from one moment to the next.  The problem is, they feel everything at once.“Time is very fluid for them. Pastpresentfuture,” says educator Joe DiPrisco, coauthor of Field Guide to The American Teenager (Perseus).

It’s not just senior year that’s running on a video loop through their heads. All of high school is there, the low points as well as the highs. “They’re especially coming to terms with loss and disappointment:‘I never made varsity, I never made honor society,’ “says DiPrisco.The result is typically some pretty strange behavior. I’m always shocked by how this last month plays out with each student,” Says Cambridge Rindge and Latin guidance counselor Karen Ford. Many seniors regress. “Kids who had grown out of bad habits, like getting into fights or mouthing off, are back into them,” she says. Others exhibit immaturity and neediness. “If your graduating senior tells you she’s sick and wants you to stay home from work with her, even though you know she’s not sick and she could stay by herself, stay home,” says Ford. Her theory is that these behaviors are “a way to say something they don’t have words for.”

Even for seniors who hated high school, “what they are going through is scary,” says developmental psychologist Tom Cottle, a professor at Boston University.They can’t yet start on whatever is next, but school, meanwhile, is throwing them out. “They’re in limbo, caught between excitement, fright, and helplessness,” he says. That can lead to uncharacteristic risk-taking. A senior who gets sick from alcohol could be keeping a promise to himself (“I gotta get drunk once before I graduate”) or testing himself (“How am I going to deal with drinking and drugs next year if I never tried them in high school?”). Or they take positive risks: “I want to try coaching that eight grade team.” That’s a self-help test, says DiPrisco: “He’s proving to himself that he’s open to new experiences.”

Seniors who get into trouble in the last month of school (and many do, he notes, typically for attention-getting pranks) are saying, “I want to make sure I had an impact on this place.” He knows of honor students who haven’t turned in a final paper, as if daring a teacher to flunk them. “It’s a way of saying ‘I don’t want to leave, I don’t know how to leave,’” DiPrisco says.There are many styles of saying goodbye. One is emotional and verbal, as with Thompson and friends. Seniors also:   --Drop close friends, fight with them, or denigrate the relationship.  That’s a defense mechanism.  “Otherwise, it hurts too much,” says Cottle.  But the hurt friend on the receiving end may need a parent’s help to identify this.   --Spend prom and graduation weeks with a new set of friends.  “That’s a pre-college test,” Ford says.  “A way to test your ability to make new friends but in a safe setting.”

If some friends feel hurt or ignored, so do most parents. “Keep it to yourself and consider yourself lucky,” DiPrisco tells parents. “Taking you for granted means the relationship is solid. He knows you’ll still be there when friends scatter.” On the other hand, don’t fade into the background so much that you shirk responsibility. Knowing all the risk-taking that can occur, initiate a conversation: “‘This is a month in your life where there’s lots of temptation.  You usually have good judgment. I trust you to exercise it the same as always.’”

At the same time, though, flexibility is important. “If he screws up in a way that six months ago would have gotten him grounded for a week, and tomorrow night is the prom, that’s a big cost,” says Joel Schulenberg, a specialist in adolescent behavior at the University of Michigan.Look for middle ground: ‘I can’t trust you as a designated driver anymore.You can go, but what can we figure out for transportation?’”. Levy-Warren says that at any given moment, every 17-year-old is on a continuum somewhere between 15 and 19. “Don’t bother pointing out contradictions,” says Ford, “Just be in the moment with them, wherever they are.”

How parents can ease the transition: 

Clear your calendar of everything extraneous. Graduating seniors pick the strangest times to want to talk, be available.

Are you fighting more than usual?  It could be because of your senior’s fear of leaving. He’s really asking, “How much do you love me? Will you miss me?”

Rituals such as award banquets, proms and graduation help ease the transition from one life to the next, but they make the leave-taking real. Expect anxiety.

There will be self-doubt and panic:“What if I’ve made the wrong decision for next year?”

Suggested response to the inevitable,“In three months, I can do whatever I want anyway, what difference does it make?” might be,“It’s true, you’ll be on your own, and I trust you’ll use good judgment. In the meantime, I don’t have to provide opportunity for dangerous behaviors.”

Rather than tell your teen the swirl of emotions you’re feeling, write them in a letter. Scrapbooks and albums that summarize high school are also appreciated.




Contact Information

Sarah Dinklage, LICSW
Executive Director


eigh Reposa, MSW, LICSW
Manager, Youth Suicide Prevention Program

Colleen Judge, LMHC                  Director, School-Based Services

Kathleen Sullivan
Director, Community Prevention/ Kent County Regional Prevention Coalition 

Heidi Driscoll                      Director, South County Regional Prevention Coalition           hdriscoll@risas.org

Sue Davis, LICSW           Manager, Student Assistance Services               sdavis@risas.org

Teri Gregg, LICSW            Manager, Student Assistance Services               tgregg@risas.org

Diane Ferrara, LICSW      Manager, Student Assistance Services           dferrara@risas.org 

300 Centerville Rd.
Suite 301 South 
Warwick, RI 02886


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