I didn’t see it coming, but neither did the other parents who shared my misery.
Throughout high school, Ryan, our oldest child, had always been a conscientious student. She worked hard in challenging AP courses and honors level classes and received decent grades for her efforts.
Like many students who are conscious of the competitive college admissions process, Ryan hoped to attract colleges by impressing them with her ability to juggle academics with regular babysitting work and extracurriculars, like singing in the school’s choir before school most mornings and playing on the soccer and lacrosse teams.
My husband and I weren’t surprised when she was accepted into her first choice college well before Thanksgiving, but we were shocked at the change in behavior it seemed to trigger. It was as if the news gave her some sort of unspoken permission to slack off. This was not acceptable, of course.
Seemingly overnight, my studious daughter turned apathetic. No longer motivated to get up early to sing, she quit chorus and took a noticeable break from homework, too. It was difficult to watch A’s plummeting to C’s. But I really lost it when her high school told us she was in danger of not graduating as a consequence of her numerous absences. What was going on?
Enter Dr. Jack Wetter, Ed.D, Associate Clinical Professor Emeritus at UCLA School of Medicine, and an expert on mental health in school-aged children. He told me my daughter’s reaction, her senioritis, was a way of taking a break from the stress.
He explains the phenomenon this way: “For some students, college admission is the golden ticket," he said. “It’s like they’ve been in ‘prison’ for several years — noses constantly to the grindstone; serious all the time. But when a university admits them, it’s a get out of jail free card."
Did this mean she was done being a serious student? Not necessarily. “For some, it’s a temporary state. Like an exhale," he explained. “They’re finally tasting the freedom they’ve been dreaming about."
Thankfully, Ryan’s senioritis went into remission before college started. It was a tough few months, but she graduated from high school on time and is doing well in her freshman year at Penn State.
For waitlisted seniors afflicted with senioritis, the problem may jeopardize their chances of admission. “The high school has every right to contact the university to voice concerns," Wetter explained, adding that the reverse can happen too. “Some colleges make final decisions after initiating contact with high schools."
_Learn the ten steps to take to go from deferred to accepted._
Either way, parents should be sure their child is aware that her behavior could have serious consequences. “It may be time for a little tough love," said the expert, who has two grown children and three grandchildren of his own.
Wetter recommends setting boundaries. “Most parents have some kind of vision for their kids and it can be difficult to watch them go down a different path," he said. If the behaviors are self-destructive, “keep them from veering too far off course by consistently imposing consequences."
Take away privileges that will have an impact. “Most teenagers can’t live without their phones or having access to a car. Losing those things will give them pause next time they’re thinking about acting in a way that could be harmful."
When poor behavior improves, make sure to reward them with praise and reinstate the lost privileges.
In extreme cases of senioritis, starting college may be a mistake. “I worry most about the kids whose behavior changes drastically — they get out of control with drugs and alcohol and can become newly disrespectful, disobedient, and emotionally removed," Wetter cautioned. “If this behavior continues into college, it’s foolish to allow enrollment at this time. College can be a huge waste of time and money and only serve to exacerbate alienation."
Wetter recommends a gap year for students like this. “Put off higher education until your child is ready to focus on his future. For some families, a gap year means the student gets a job, lives at home, and contributes toward expenses. It can be sobering for a young adult to watch his friends go off to college while he stays behind."
A gap year should not be open ended, however. “If all goes well and your child matures, revisit starting college the following fall."
Sadly, many kids end high school feeling emotionally and intellectually drained. “There’s so much pressure to excel at a very young age — often starting in first grade! I believe if students were allowed to have some freedom along the way — not just at the end of high school — there’d be a lot less senioritis. Allow a little freshman-, sophomore-, and junior-itis each year. That’s what your children will remember."
Kids need true breaks — time that isn’t scheduled and permission to relax and have fun. “Be mindful of your child’s need for down time," Wetter advises. “Keep summer what it was meant to be: a vacation. When I was growing up, summer school was for catching up and remediation — today it’s all about enrichment, and I think it’s wrong. There’s value in having nothing to do — that’s when kids figure out who they are and where they want to go in life. Make it acceptable in your family."
Finally, families need to spend more time having fun together. “I’m big on family travel, board games, or visiting museums," he says. “I don’t see enough family type stuff going on. I see parents doing their own thing and kids doing theirs. Everyone may be at home but in his or her own space — absorbed by his or her own individual. No interaction at all. Such a missed opportunity for connection."
Jack Wetter, Ed.D, FAClinP, associate clinical professor emeritus, UCLA School of Medicine. Diplomate in Clinical Psychology. American Board of Professional Psychology. Phone interview and email exchange. January 2015.