“I’m so stressed out about senior year of high school.”
My husband and I were reviewing the list of 8-12 colleges that our rising senior plans to apply to when I blurted out my true feelings about senior year. Yes, you read that right—I’m stressed about senior year of high school. Dylan (my rising senior) rolled his eyes and laughed in disbelief. “Mom, you’re not the one going through this, remember?”
Right. But I am.
Stress levels and the support high school seniors need
Going back to school this fall seems more stressful than ever. It’s a stress that’s all too familiar yet newly overwhelming. School and every other space that Dylan frequently occupies have turned from places that feel safe to learn, worship, or hang out to places we plan escape routes for—so that he can survive. Since the Columbine shooting in 1999, over 311,000 students have experienced gun violence in their school. Asian American young people also report an alarming rate of discrimination because of their race and ethnicity since the start of the pandemic. These added layers of concern make going back to school no longer just about buying new school supplies and picking the right outfit for the first day.
In addition to the collective trauma that has become part of the everyday reality of our nation’s young people, going back to school as a rising senior means added stress for those who are wondering what their futures might hold post high school (including parents!). This is a time of big transition for many seniors as they begin to shed their identity as high schoolers, but their new beginning has yet to be operationalized. Similarly, this is a time of big transition for parents or parent figures as they begin to shed their identity as the primary decision-making influencers in their teenager’s lives. According to transitions expert William Bridges, “this is the time between the old reality and sense of identity and the new one. People are creating new processes and learning what their new roles will be. They are in flux and may feel confusion and distress.” To sum it up, being a senior, and the parent of one, can be challenging.
What every senior needs to hear
As a mom of a rising senior, I recently came back from taking Dylan and three of his youth group friends on a West-coast college tour, which I know is a privilege many young people don’t experience. We had so much fun, and I slept for 12 hours when we returned home (because no one told me how tiring it would be going on college tours with four teenage boys). But was it worth it? Yes! For obvious reasons of course, but also, I learned a key lesson that I want to share with all parents and parent-figures trying our best to support our high school seniors returning to school this fall.
We arrived early for one of our scheduled college tours, so we spent some downtime sipping coffee and eating breakfast at a nearby café. Soon we got on the topic of how stressful it is to apply to college, but each person ultimately ends up at the school he or she is supposed to be at. This statement was quickly met with the response, “Yeah, I wish my parents trusted that process too.”
Mostly out of love and good intentions, we parents offer support in ways that our teenagers experience as stress because our support can come with qualifiers. It’s easier to support our kids if they make the grades, or if their plans align with our vision for their lives. I’ll be the first one to admit that I do this. So, taking cues from the Fuller Youth Institute’s newest research and book, 3 Big Questions That Change Every Teenager, I took the opportunity to ask them, “If your parents could only say one thing to encourage you as you start the new school year, what would you want to hear?” They all unanimously agreed it would be, “I support you.”
“I support you.” Period.
These may be the only three words your teenagers want to hear as they go back to school.
The important connection between support and growth
In my own experience as a leader and educator, I am a strong believer in Nevitt Sanford’s research that shows our need for increased support when we encounter increased challenges in order to maximize growth opportunities. Here’s a graph that visually captures what I mean:
Without realizing it, the four teenage boys I had the privilege of learning from that day helped me recall this theory and apply it to my parenting. Supporting our teens doesn’t mean we fill out college applications for them, or that they never experience failure or negative consequences. I’m pretty sure Dylan and his friends would also say that support doesn’t come with qualifiers. “I support you” means our teenagers can rely on our commitment to advocate, back, champion, and uphold them throughout a transitional process and life in general as they exercise their agency to face the challenges before them.
Being confident in that, they don’t question our support because we no longer communicate control and fear through “I support you if ______.” Rather, we communicate trust and calm through “Even if _______ I support you.”
Even if the world seems out of control, I support you.
Even if you don’t want to go to college, I support you.
Even if you fail, I support you.
I like to think of this as a surrendered support versus a controlled support. In surrendered support, I stop trying to control the qualifier gap and remember that Jesus works in the transitional, unknown spaces just as much as when our future is crystal clear. Knowing this as a parent helps relieve my stress.
So as Dylan returns to school this fall, I hope that I can be loud and clear about my unconditional support for him while he navigates life’s challenges—including college applications—and waits for his next new beginning. As parents, we know that our kids were made for this moment, but they’re also more than this moment. We can trust God’s bigger story for their lives. I believe with our support, we can help young people leverage this moment for the future that awaits.
Tweet this: Parents, this year instead of “I support you if ...”, try “Even if … I support you.” Read on to learn about the link between support and growth for your high school senior.
A roadmap to the teenagers in your life.
3 Big Questions That Change Every Teenager gives you conversations and connections to help teenagers unlock their potential and discover essential faith.
 Sanford, N. (1962). The American college. New York: Wiley.
 Sanford, N. (1966). Self and society: Social change and individual development. New York: Atherton.
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