Child Caring

Senior year ends: Emotions run high

By Barbara F. Meltz
Globe Columnist / May 10, 2001

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When she's not blinking back tears, Arianna Thompson's dark eyes are so full of intensity it's as if she's trying to soak up the essence of her four best friends seated around the table with her. That would be one way, anyway, to have them with her for each second of these waning days of high school and for the beginning of college.

"The thought of next year, of leaving and not being together, it's just terrifying," Thompson groans, tears flowing freely. "You guys . . ."

Claudia Pafumi on one side of her and Kate Silver-Heilman on the other give a brief squeeze to her outstretched hands. Along with Arielle Nelson and Heather Hansman, the five girls have been best friends for their last two years at the Cambridge Rindge and Latin School.

For high school students, that's a long time, and time is the villain now. It's collapsing in on them. A week from tomorrow is the last day of classes. Graduation is four weeks away. How can this be? It was just yesterday that the senior year was beginning, that all of high school was beginning. . . .

"Bittersweet is what describes the last month," says psychologist Marsha Levy-Warren, associate director of the Institute for Child, Adolescent, and Family in New York City.

So does peripatetic. Not only is your teenager a moving target that's hard to keep physical track of, but his or her emotions are as unpredictable as a pinball.

One minute, she's experiencing the bitterness: "I don't want to leave!" The next, she's tasting what's sweet: "I can't wait to go, I am so done with this place!" One minute, you're the best mother ever and will you pleaseplease make his favorite meal. The next, you're the worst adult on the planet.

The problem is, graduating seniors don't know where to position themselves emotionally from one moment to the next. The problem is, they feel everything at once.

"Time is very fluid for them. Pastpresentfuture," says educator Joe DiPrisco, coauthor of "Field Guide to The American Teenager" (Perseus).

It's not just senior year that's running on a video loop through their heads. All of high school is there, the low points as well as the highs. "They're especially coming to terms with loss and disappointment: `I never made varsity, I never made honor society,' " says DiPrisco.

The result is typically some pretty strange behavior. "I'm always shocked by how this last month plays out with each student," says Cambridge Rindge and Latin guidance counselor Karen Ford.

Many seniors regress. "Kids who had grown out of bad habits, like getting into fist fights or mouthing off, are back into them," she says. Others exhibit immaturity and neediness.

"If your graduating senior tells you she's sick and wants you to stay home from work with her, even though you know she's not sick and she could stay by herself, stay home," says Ford. Her theory is that these behaviors are "a way to say something they don't have words for."

The words that Thompson, Pafumi, Nelson, Silver-Heilman, and Hansman use repeatedly are terrified, excited, worried, scared, happy, sad. Nelson talks about feeling "weird." Silver-Heilman is having trouble sleeping. Hansman is ready to leave tomorrow but worries she doesn't have enough time to do everything she wants and say goodbye to everyone she'll miss.

Even for seniors who hated high school, "what they are going through is scary," says developmental psychologist Tom Cottle, a professor at Boston University.

They can't yet start on whatever is next for them, but school, meanwhile, is throwing them out. "They're in limbo, caught between excitement, fright, and helplessness," he says.

That can lead to uncharacteristic risk-taking. A senior who gets sick from drinking too much could be keeping a promise to himself ("I gotta get drunk once before I graduate") or testing himself ("How am I going to deal with drinking and drugs next year if I never tried them in high school?"). Once in a while, they take positive risks: "I want to try coaching that eighth-grade team." That's a self-help test, says DiPrisco: "He's proving to himself that he's open to new experiences."

He says seniors who get into trouble in the last month of school (and many do, he notes, typically for attention-getting pranks) are saying, "I want to make sure I had an impact on this place."

"It's a way of saying, `I don't want to leave, I don't know how to leave,' " DiPrisco says.

There are many styles of saying goodbye. One is emotional and verbal, as with Thompson and friends, where seniors name and label what a friendship means to them. Seniors also:

Drop close friends, fight with them, or denigrate the relationship. That's a defense mechanism. "Otherwise, it hurts too much," says Cottle. Unfortunately, of course, it can be very hurtful to the friend on the receiving end who may need a parent's help to identify this for what it is.

Spend prom and graduation weeks with a new set of friends. "That's a pre-college test," Ford says. "A way to test your ability to make new friends but in a safe setting." Ditto the above advice for the friends who feel abandoned.

Reconnect with a friend from the past. This is like an epiphany, says DiPrisco: "They're examining their life and they've decided, `Wow! She's the friend who really counts!' "

If some friends feel hurt or ignored, so do most parents. "Keep it to yourself and consider yourself lucky," DiPrisco tells parents. "Taking you for granted means the relationship is solid. He knows you'll still be there when friends scatter."

If there's more friction than usual with parents, Levy-Warren speculates it's because our sadness and anxiety has us clutching at straws. DiPrisco once over-heard one senior say to another, incredulously, "Can you believe it? My parents wanted me to go to the movies with them!"

Just as we don't want to appear pathetic in our child's eyes, we also don't want to add to their long list of worries. "This isn't about us. Don't take any of it personally," says psychologist John Schulenberg, a professor at the University of Michigan who specializes in adolescent behavior.

On the other hand, don't fade into the background so much that you shirk responsibility. Knowing all the risk-taking that can occur, he would initiate a conversation: " `This is a month in your life where there's lots of temptation. You usually have good judgment. I trust you to exercise it the same as always.' "

If there's more than the usual pushing and pulling or a history of acting out, Levy-Warren tells parents to spell out specifically what you're concerned about and reiterate your values around it.

"This isn't a time to be laying down new rules or imposing new curfews," she says, "but to be asking questions and posing `what-if' scenarios: `Who's the designated driver? What if you realize the driver has been drinking after all?' " Levy-Warren is author of "The Adolescent Journey" (Aronson).

This is not a time to loosen up too much, says DiPrisco, especially if you have reason not to trust him. "If you discover he's been abusing, this is not the time to look the other way," he says. Ford agrees. "They do need to spend time with each other and I encourage parents to facilitate that, but not so you open up the house on the Cape without chaperones," she says. "Consider that if he's pushing boundaries, it may be because it's the only way he knows to get limits, and he's so scared, limits are the only thing that make him feel safe."

At the same time, though, flexibility is important.

"If he screws up in a way that six months ago would have gotten him grounded for a week, and tomorrow night is the prom, that's a big cost," says Schulenberg. He would look for middle ground: "I can't trust you as a designated driver anymore. You can go, but what can we figure out for transportation?"

Levy-Warren says that at any given moment, every 17-year-old is on a continuum somewhere between 15 and 19. With a graduating senior, the tilts in either direction come fast and furiously.

"Don't bother pointing out contradictions," says Ford. "Just be in the moment with them."

Arianna Thompson sounds very much like a young adult as she talks about the new level of independence she'll have at Wesleyan University. "I am completely happy with my life," she says.

Moments later, she wells up again: "I'm terrified I won't make best friends." If her friends weren't there to put a figurative arm around her, certainly her parents would want to be.


Recommended: "How to Photograph Your Family," by Nick Kelsh (Stewart Tabori & Chang).

Help your children ease the transition

1 These last weeks before your child graduates, clear your calendar of everything extraneous. Graduating seniors may pick the strangest times to want to talk; the best thing a parent can do is be available to listen.

2 Encourage and/or help your child plan a reunion with friends over the summer. It can take the bite out of graduation.

3 Are you fighting more than usual with your senior? It's likely due to his fear of leaving. He's really asking, ''How much do you love me? Will you miss me? Can I count on you?''

4 Rituals such as award banquets, proms, and graduation help ease the transition from one life to the next, but they also make the leave-taking more real. Expect anxiety around them.

5 Expect some self-doubt and panic: ''What if I've made the wrong decision for next year?''

6 Suggested response to the inevitable retort, ''In three months, I can do whatever I want anyway, what difference does it make?'' might be, ``It's true, you'll be on your own, and I hope and trust you'll use good judgment. In the meantime, I don't have to provide opportunity for behaviors I consider dangerous.''

7 Rather than telling your teen the swirl of emotions you're feeling, put them down in a letter. Scrapbooks, photo albums, or quilts that summarize all of high school also are appreciated.
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