High school seniors face big - uncertain - year as they set sights on college


This was going to be a big moment for Jake Hoban. Entering his senior year, Hoban expected to be named starting quarterback for Westlake High School in Thousand Oaks. He hoped to impress college scouts and perhaps earn a scholarship from the likes of Arizona State University, the University of Oregon, or San Diego State University. Regardless, he looked forward to spending a final school year with his friends.

Then the COVID-19 pandemic intervened.

With all California high school sports on hold at least until the winter, there will be no football for Hoban this fall, and the plan beyond that is murky. Like most K-12 schools in California, Westlake High will start online, so time with friends will mostly be confined to texts and calls.

“As a freshman, my coaches would say, ‘In the blink of an eye you’re going to be a senior,’ ” Hoban recalls. “Now I’m a senior, and it kind of sucks.”

Starting — and possibly finishing — the final year of high school remotely makes this a challenging time for many seniors, says Melissa Brymer, PhD, a psychologist with the UCLA-Duke National Center for Child Traumatic Stress. Many feel disappointment, sadness and a sense of loss as they begin their final chapter of adolescence separated from peers and unable to participate in traditional senior-year rituals.

Adding to the stress are the uncertainties associated with a pandemic whose course is challenging for even public health experts to predict, as well as the added burden for those whose families face economic hardships, job uncertainties and the need for more assistance caring for younger siblings.

“We do hear from some high-schoolers who are thriving with this transition — they’ve appreciated the lack of social pressures and/or having more family time,” notes Brymer, whose center supports schools, mental health centers and other social service systems in raising the standard of care and increasing access to services for children and families who experience or witness traumatic events. “Unfortunately, not all kids are having that experience, and without clarity on how the year will progress, it can be especially stressful.”

For Westlake High senior Julianne Hua, a member of the field hockey team and marching band, the disappointment over the indefinite postponement of sports is secondary to a concern about the impact on her college applications of not being able to accrue sufficient volunteering credentials. “Many of us are having the same problem, because all of the volunteer opportunities and internships we had lined up went away,” Hua says.

For high school seniors whose spirits are flagging during these difficult times, Brymer urges parents to help them remain socially and academically engaged.

“High-schoolers are so good at being creative,” she says. “They can find new ways to volunteer, whether it’s contacting incoming freshmen to welcome them, tutoring or offering music or dance lessons to younger kids over Zoom, or coming up with other activities through which they can help their community while tapping into their passions.”

Brymer also recommends that parents point their youth toward coping strategies that have worked for them in the past, such as writing, music, or taking a regular evening walk as a family. “Encourage them to reach out to their peers and help them see that although there are many uncertainties about the future, they can still hold on to those things they have control over,” she adds.

Parents should become concerned and potentially seek outside help if their child shows significant changes in mood and of not caring about the future, Brymer says. Above all, they should remind their child that the current hardships won’t be permanent, and that better times lie ahead.

“It’s really important to promote a sense of hope,” she says. “At the same time, we need to acknowledge and not try to deny their disappointment.”