Should Your Teen Do a Gap Year?

As seniors get college acceptances and rejections, and juniors visit prospective colleges in earnest, I find I’m recommending gap years for many more students than in the past. There are three main reasons for this. One, many teens in my practice don’t seem ready to handle the academic, social, or emotional demands of college. Two, I’m continuing to see increasing numbers of freshmen not making it once they get there. And three, as more teens are choosing to take gap years and benefitting from their experiences, I’m even more convinced of their value.

How can you tell if extra time before college would be helpful for your sons or daughters—or, more important, if they’re at risk for struggling and need a gap year? This is vital decision. Not only is college an enormous investment, but also students who have to come home pay an even steeper emotional cost. To help you in assessing your teens’ readiness, I’ll describe the most common scenarios I’ve observed, highlighting the key skills I believe college students need to thrive.

Academic Preparedness

Many students these days are graduating from high school with acceptable grades yet, ironically, rather undeveloped study skills. They’ve succeeded only because they’ve been propped up by scaffolding—from schools, parents, and tutors. When they get to college, there is no one to track their assignments, check their grades on online sites, edit (or rewrite) their papers, remind them to do their homework or study, and so forth.

Along with taking care of themselves and acclimating to university life, new freshmen must independently organize and monitor their own work, use self-discipline to resist distractions, and figure out how to study for college-level classes. Those who have never practiced because they’ve relied on others for external support are at risk for foundering, falling behind, dropping classes, and sometimes flunking out.

Jeremy is a good example. After the summer of his freshman year, his parents were shocked to learn that he was “not welcome to return.” He had not passed a single second-semester class. How had this happened?

It turns out that signs of academic unreadiness were there all along. From fourth grade on, Jeremy didn’t turn in homework. By middle school, missing assignments were reducing his grades. In high school he regularly cut classes. To earn enough credits to graduate, he had to take online and night classes. Remarkably, Jeremy was accepted to a four-year university. His parents assumed that once he got there he would finally apply himself. As is often the case, this turned out to be wishful thinking.

Jeremy’s pattern of not attending classes and doing assignments continued. Yet until the last day of the semester, he believed he would somehow pass. After all, this had been his experience in high school. Living at home with his parents and younger siblings, Jeremy longed to be with his friends on campus and felt terribly ashamed.

Jeremy’s story, which is all too common, may serve as a warning: Pay attention to red flags for possible academic failure. If you see chronic lack of interest in school, difficulties staying organized and self-monitoring, constant procrastination due to poor self-discipline, and questionable study skills, your teens may not be ready for the academic rigors of college. Just because they want to be there doesn’t mean they have the skills to succeed—or can instantly develop them. Study habits need to be practiced over time.

               Strategies

Rather than sending seniors off to college expecting them to suddenly change their ways or merely hoping for the best, a gap year might be prudent. Consider a structured, transitional college program. Taking a course or two (rather than a full-time load) with built-in support allows students to develop and/or refine study skills, which can set them up for academic success.

Seniors can also become part-time students at local community colleges, practicing the skills they need on their own or by working with learning coaches and/or tutors. Starting out slowly enables them to keep up, prevents them from getting overwhelmed and falling behind, and helps them focus on the process of learning.

Social Discomfort

For some seniors, the academic demands of college are a cinch, but making friends and living with a roommate will be challenging and stressful. Most often these teens have struggled socially. Without close friendships or a best pal, they’ve been a bit isolated and perhaps lonely. Some do better with adults or younger kids, but have trouble relating to peers. Group situations make them especially uncomfortable, which is one reason why contemplating college life makes them so anxious.

Elena fits this profile. She is an extremely bright, intellectually curious 18-year-old who excelled in high school and is confident about doing well in college. But during her teen years she’s felt disconnected from classmates. Her rather rigid beliefs and harsh judgments of less successful peers made it hard for her to make friends, even at a sleep-away camp and in school clubs. Fortunately, Elena recognized that her social fears would likely limit her enjoyment of college. She wisely decided to work on forming relationships before she got to campus.

               Strategies

Like academic skills, social expertise is usually developed gradually, over time. If teens are struggling with peers during high school, parents may encourage them to join after school clubs and activities with like-minded classmates. Structured, adult-led programs are often easier to navigate than the often vague and confusing social rules governing parties and cafeterias. Skill-building groups for teens offered by schools, community agencies, or mental health clinicians in private practice may also be good options. Check with your teens’ school to find out what’s available.

Elena elected to do a gap year before heading off to a prestigious college across the country. After much research, she chose two six-month programs—one travel-oriented, the other academic— run by slightly older, experienced group leaders. She wanted to be with a small group of similarly smart and inquisitive students, learn to live and work with them, and also rely on herself. Her mother later told me that Elena grew immeasurably during that time. As a college freshman she made two good friends, which made her feel more socially included than she ever had in high school.

Unfinished Emotional Business

According to research, half of college students report feeling anxious and overwhelmed by the pressures of everything they have to do. That’s problematic enough. But some freshmen arrive at their dorms carrying the additional emotional baggage of panic disorders, depression, unresolved grief, family dysfunction, eating disorders, and/or traumas. College often triggers or exacerbates these issues because students away from home miss their usual support systems. They are less able to cope when tired, stressed, and insecure. New and challenging situations also may remind them of their painful pasts.

Academic and extracurricular pressure during high school, in my experience, enables many teens to avoid dealing with their personal issues. They’re “too busy” to sit still and self-reflect. Instead, they go through the motions of meeting others’ expectations, neglecting the hard but necessary work of figuring out who they are and what truly motivates them as well as resolving ongoing emotional issues. Teens who have had to focus on their demons usually miss out on some of the formative experiences of their peers. An extra year to grow and blossom can be a gift.

Daniel is a 19-year-old who left college in March of his freshman year because of difficulty managing his eating, sleeping, and work habits. Falling behind in his assignments, he started to have immobilizing panic attacks. Freezing when he failed to keep up academically was not new for him. Although he needed tremendous support just to get through high school, he refused to do a recommended gap year.

Back at home, Daniel was better able to take care of himself. His physical and mental health improved. Best of all, the need to leave college motivated him to finally face in therapy the deeply traumatic experience and unresolved grief that shaped his childhood and prevented him from moving forward in his life. Daniel got a job, worked with a study skills coach, and enrolled in a college closer to home, where he thrived. Now he’s considering a year off to figure out what he really wants to study.

                Strategies

To work through painful experiences, some young people need to be away from home. Yet the distance from family that enables them to face their pasts also makes it hard for them to manage living on their own. Although many universities offer support groups and crisis intervention, they often don’t have the resources to offer longer-term psychotherapy. For students who remain on campus, however, student counseling centers may be able to recommend local private practitioners.

Other college students may have to come home while they address their troubles. Not a few have come to see me to finally address traumas such as childhood sexual abuse and assault that they were trying to ignore but became overwhelming or debilitating. There is no shame in teens taking a medical leave of absence from college. In fact, frame this option as a healthy decision enabling students to take good care of themselves so they can get the most out of their college experiences.

Time to Grow Up

In this climate of achievement pressure, in which precocity is valued, it is easy to forget that young people mature at different rates. Some are late bloomers who need some more time to come into themselves. Along with socially uncomfortable teens, those who have focused intensely on academics or sports or music may have missed out on some of the formative experiences of more typical peers. Similarly, students who struggled with learning disabilities may have developed strong study strategies but had fewer opportunities to become socially savvy. And teens who used their inner resources to deal with emotional issues may not have had the wherewithal to focus on academics.

Gap years can be the great equalizer, allowing students not only to mature but also to address weaknesses in their skills. In fact, many parents who regret not holding back their young five-year-olds from starting kindergarten find that a gap year gives them another opportunity to boost their kids’ readiness for this next educational transition.

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Depending on their needs, seniors can choose from a growing number of available programs or create their own experiences. Fancy or expensive opportunities aren’t necessary. Teens can work (the idea being not to pad their resumes but to gain the sense of competence and confidence that comes from positive feedback), stay with relatives or family friends who live abroad, volunteer, or do community service projects. The most important goal of the gap year is to foster teens’ ability to develop parts of themselves that will help them thrive once they’re in college.

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