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Does my teenager have senioritis?

Dear Dr. Gwenn,

My son, who is a high school senior and is bright but academically lazy, started relaxing his academic standards after first semester finished and he had sent in his college applications. Nothing I say about work ethic, college admissions requirements, or personal pride is making a dent in his impression that he is entitled to bask in the glory and privileges of being a senior without the hard work of school! He works two days a week after school, which is new this year; and other than this intellectual malaise, he generally shows common sense. Can you give me any advice about combating "senioritis"?

Thank you!

MC, Whitinsville, MA


Dear MC:

There is not a parent among us who can’t relate to what your son is feeling – we’ve all been there! Still, you are right on the mark regarding the need to at least give lip service to school work.

Developmentally, senior year is an interesting time for high school students. They are on the brink of adulthood and new horizons, yet they still have some adolescent rebellion to shake out of their systems. Graduating from high school is huge – it marks the end of “childhood” and the start of “adulthood.” The feelings this transition invokes in a senior is equally monumental: fear of leaving behind the familiar and tackling the unknown, fear of not fitting in or not being prepared, and even concern about not having family near by.

Most high school guidance departments work hard to assist seniors in dealing with these uncomfortable feelings. In Wayland, Norma Greenberg and her guidance team tries multiple ways to get students to air their feelings. She notes that “most students experience some mild form of this 'disorder' and recover quite nicely”. According to Greenberg, few students experience a concerning decline. For the few that do, the school helps the parents and student as they would any problem impacting education. Talk to your son’s guidance department to find out what they can do to help, and see if there are resources your son is not taking advantage of.

Developmentally, your son may respond better to concrete proof of what you are trying to explain than just the explanation. Most colleges now have online information about admissions criteria and include a statement about admissions being “contingent” on successfully completing high school. Colleges do find that incoming students who don’t take senior year seriously have a rough adjustment to college life and academics. Some colleges even withdraw admission to students who have not performed well senior year.You may want to explore seeing if a member of the admissions team at some of the colleges your son applied to would talk to him. Your high school guidance department can also help connect you with people at the colleges who can talk to your son. The guidance department may also be able to connect your son with past students who faced similar hurdles as your son. Sometimes that peer connection can be very powerful.

You are right about the seriousness of this situation. While this is likely just a bad case of “senioritis,” given the severity of the slump, you may want to consider exploring other possibilities such as depression or substance abuse. The guidance department and your pediatrician can both help you explore if these are at play.

You mentioned your son is working this year, but what other extracurricular events is he involved with? Keeping him busy in school with his peers can be a strong motivator. He may be overly concerned about the financial aspects of college. Helping him understand that nowadays almost everyone needs loans may help him relax about the need to work so much.

It’s also important to recognize that this is also an issue of button pushing and compromise. Separating from a parent is difficult – causing friction is sometimes easier. In the end, the lessons you and your son learn about compromise and communication will be invaluable next year as he truly starts the next phase of his life.

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Content copyright © 2013 by Gwenn Schurgin O'Keeffe, M.D., F.A.A.P.. All rights reserved.
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