From teen to adult: Two ways to help high school seniors transition to young adulthood

Laura Atwater Holliday Image Laura Atwater Holliday | Mar 23, 2023

If I’m honest, young adulthood-which I'm defining as beginning immediately following high school graduation-has been a more turbulent experience than adolescence.

Don’t get me wrong, adolescence was often difficult to navigate. However, growing up it felt like everyone always talked about how tough adolescence was. I don’t recall many teachers and family members talking much about the challenges that would come in young adulthood.

In my final year of high school, I was overwhelmed by the number of choices I had to make in preparation for the future while at the same time savoring the remainder of my adolescence. At this life stage, I was trying to figure out if I should go to college in state or out of state, what my major would be, which of my high school friends were actually going to stick around after graduation, and if I should get a summer job and save up money or enjoy my last free summer before college. This period felt like my own life-sized version of The Game of Life.

Looking back, I wish that the adults in my life had given me language to navigate the instability I was about to experience.

It’s important as youth leaders that we honor the season each young person is in and meet them in their questions and insecurities. We must adapt our ministry strategies when our young people move out of adolescence and into a new life stage.

Navigating and surviving young adulthood can be difficult. So how can we help our high school seniors transition well?

First, empathize with today’s young people in two key areas: the transition into young adulthood and the losses that come with that transition.

While we may not notice much of a difference in our graduating seniors between May graduation and the first day of college (if they choose to attend!), there are distinct markers that separate young adulthood from adolescence.

For example, during this time early young adults experience a new realm of housing instability—potentially for the first time ever. Most adolescents live with their parents or a legal guardian, whereas young adults have a wide choice of who to live with (parents, friends, assigned random roommates, etc.).

For many high school seniors, there are endless options from which to choose for their life ahead. Some may decide to attend a 4-year university, while others will enroll in vocational training. Some may choose to immediately enter the workforce, while others may take a “gap” year and travel or serve abroad. I recognize that not all high school seniors have unlimited opportunities ahead of them. Regardless, stepping into young adulthood can seem like an endless stream of options. No matter what their future will look like, the pressing need to make decisions about what’s next often influences how young people experience the present.

One way youth leaders can help care for high school seniors is to acknowledge that what they’re beginning to experience may ignite a lot of different feelings. Some may feel thrilled, terrified, anxious, hopeful, and so many other emotions—perhaps at the same time!

The losses that come with this transition

In the midst of the fanfare of senior prom, graduation, and other ceremonies that may communicate excitement of the future, a lot of losses can go unacknowledged.

One major loss that I experienced during this transition into young adulthood was the disappearance of a roadmap.

For many young adults, the season after high school is their first time without a clear guide. Up until this point, the education system has told them what they should be learning and when—a child should know their alphabet as they move from kindergarten to 1st grade, a middle school student should move into more advanced mathematics, etc.—and as they grow, they look to their peers to check that they’re “on track.” Your students may be anticipating their freedom with excitement, but probably don’t realize the disorientation that may come with the loss of this roadmap. While the narrative being told is that life is linear, in the transition from adolescence to young adulthood they are faced—often for the first time—with the falsehood of this narrative.

In FYI’s own research, as well as countless conversations with my peers, a common finding is that young adults don’t know if they’re on track because everyone’s journey looks different.

Second, be curious about the unique realities of young adulthood today.

Youth leaders like myself may feel like we have a good grasp on adolescence. We’ve been to all of the different youth ministry conferences, learned with other youth pastors, and may even have a degree in youth ministry. However, your high school seniors don’t need you to be a youth ministry expert. They need you to be curious about their own experiences of transitioning into young adulthood.

Understand the realities of young adulthood

Young Adult Ministry Now, FYI's landmark ministry guide, affirms that today’s young adults face more choices, challenges, and opportunities on their road to adulthood—and all of this requires more time and new forms of support. Many of the traditional markers of adulthood such as marriage, parenthood, and purchasing a home are happening five or more years later. For those who go into college, they are, on average, graduating with three times as much debt as those who graduated in the 1990s. They also are likely attending school partially or fully online, working on the side, and figuring out career steps in the face of a rapidly changing economic landscape.

Needless to say, high school seniors are facing a much different reality as they transition into young adulthood than those who are over 30. And once we understand what is to come in young adulthood, we are better able to help walk with our seniors in this transition.

Listen to high school seniors’ experiences

No matter how many books we read, podcasts we listen to, or conferences we attend, young people will still be the experts on young people—especially since the global pandemic. Only our students know what it’s like to be a high school senior in the year 2023.

We must be willing to listen to our students’ hopes, dreams, and losses in this transition stage.

Ask your young people questions and step into the role of student, allowing them to be the experts on this time of transition. One great trick is to ask, “tell me more.” I will be honest: this is a hard question to get used to asking, especially if you’re like me and tend to accidentally give unprompted advice. Instead of responding to the sentiment “I can’t even begin to think of college” with “College is important! Which schools are you looking at?,” try “Would you tell me more about that?” and see where the conversation goes.

Asking questions communicates that we care. Ask your graduating seniors how they’re really feeling about the changes and transition that they are stepping into.

Walking alongside high school seniors with empathy and curiosity

I’ve made it to the final years of young adulthood with some speed bumps along the way. I can’t help but think about what would have helped me and my peers as we were fumbling through the early years of young adulthood. For myself and those I know, I believe that a little empathy and curiosity from our youth workers at the start of the journey would have helped make the speed bumps a little easier to handle.

The calling to walk alongside young people is no small task, especially when those young people are transitioning into a life stage that looks a little different than when we were their age. We minister to our high school seniors in their current context, yet we also keep their future selves in mind.

As you help graduating seniors navigate this time of transition in the next few months, remember that you don’t have to have all the answers. Try exercising empathy and being curious about this new life stage that they are on the cusp of. See where God leads both of you.

Tweet this: Your high school seniors don’t need you to be a youth ministry expert. They need you to be curious about their own experiences of transitioning into young adulthood.

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Laura Atwater Holliday Image
Laura Atwater Holliday

Laura Atwater Holliday is currently serving as FYI’s apprentice while she pursues her MDiv at Fuller Theological Seminary. Originally from Bakersfield, Laura moved to Southern California to attend Azusa Pacific University, where she completed BAs in Biblical Studies and Youth Ministry. Laura is passionate about equipping teenagers and young adults in the journey of faith and caring for youth workers. She currently lives with her husband and their dog, Charlie, in Orange County.

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