Your High School Senior is Graduating – What Next?

As we get further into the spring and nearer to the end of the school year, many parents start to contemplate the next stage for their high school seniors. The milestone of high school graduation marks a major turning point for a lot of families, since a majority of graduating seniors are planning to leave home to attend college. (According to the last year for which data is available, 2018, about 64% of graduating seniors in this country go directly to college.)  Even if your high school senior is not getting ready to leave home in the next few months, he or she is still in the midst of the transition to young adulthood, which involves some changes in the nature and/or goals of parenting. 

One of the important developmental tasks that researchers talk about during adolescence involves autonomy, or the ability to act on your own values and interests. Although autonomy is related to independence, they are somewhat different. When you are autonomous, you are acting purposefully and according to your own free will. When you are independent, you can accomplish something without the help of others. Autonomy involves thinking for yourself, whereas independence involves doing for yourself.  Ideally, we want our young adult children to have developed both of these traits by the time they are out on their own. 

One aspect of helping young adults to think for themselves necessarily involves parents disengaging from their role as the ones in charge. Parents can certainly talk with their older adolescent and young adult children about whatever challenges they are facing, but the shift is from making decisions for them to making decisions with them. Parents should work on asking their adolescents what they want to do or plan to do in a given situation, instead of telling them what to do. It is important to let teens grapple with decisions more on their own, even when parents don’t agree with their choices. Resilience is built from learning how to cope when things go wrong, and naturally occurring consequences are much more powerful teachers than ones that are metered out by parents.  

In thinking about fostering independence, one general guideline for parents is to stop doing things for their young adult children that they are capable of doing for themselves. Young adults should be managing a range of specific tasks on their own, including making their own doctor’s appointments, managing their own spending money, doing their own laundry and other household tasks, and keeping track of their own daily schedules. In addition, they need to be able to independently handle more general areas of their lives such as interpersonal challenges (e.g., arguments with friends or dealing with a difficult boss or teacher). This obviously doesn’t mean that parents can’t offer support, encouragement and/or advice to their young adult children, but in order to allow this independence to develop, parents need to back off of completing the actual tasks and/or running interference when problems arise.

Best of luck to the graduating class of 2022, and may this next year bring on new challenges but also amazing adventures and successes. 


Kathleen Boykin McElhaney, Ph.D.

Licensed Clinical Psychologist