When Your Child Wants Off the College Carousel

The process of deciding where to go to college is the single most significant event in your child’s secondary school experience. For many, the college process begins in 9th grade, with some parents seeding the groundwork before middle school. I wasn’t one of them. My daughter began her college search in earnest in her junior year and by senior year had narrowed her choices to eight schools. She was accepted at seven.

She registered at a small New England school with a strong academic pedigree. I left her there on a sunny September morning, and as I held her for our goodbye, I noted she was trembling. Sick with worry, I drove the six hours home, tears blinding my eyes. She called (well, texted) frequently in the ensuing months and seemed to be okay. Her grades were excellent and she seemed to like it there. I exhaled. When she came home at spring break, I noted she looked tired and thin but I attributed it to studying. In May, she was home for summer. By July she was fidgety and one night came downstairs and said “Mom, I want to take a year off.” Here are some of the things I learned in the process figuring out what her next steps should be:


It’s hard to know what drives a student to take this kind of step. Be gentle but dig deep. Is the decision emotional or rational? Take a clear-eyed look at your child, warts and all. Yes, even the best kids have a wart or two. What is driving the decision: apathy, boredom, lack of social life, no friends? Is your child challenged or the opposite-overwhelmed? Are there emotional issues at play? It’s critical to understand the underlying issue as best you can. Remember, you were not there to observe your child.


It’s important that your college child understand how much you respect and support their decision. Of course, if the reason for the time off is disciplinary for any reason, that is a different story. That requires a completely different approach. For most students this is not the case. More commonly, the decision is frustratingly nebulous. Statements like “I just don’t like it there” or “My friends LOVE their schools-I don’t” are common and most times, student and parent are equally perplexed about the genuine reason. In the face of all this, it’s important to be supportive yet objective.


This a sticking point for many parents. When my daughter announced her decision I was very supportive but clear on one thing. The year had to be a productive one. This is what I said to her “You must have a job while you are home. This isn’t a spa break.” I was smiling when I said this but I meant it. Truth be told, the rigors of high school can burn the students out, particularly those who like to excel and many could probably use a spa.

Peer Judgments

When I say peers, I am referring to hers… and yours. I innocently told a few close friends my daughter was taking a year off . They were aghast. Their reaction surprised me and hurt me. Many fathers uniformly said the same thing  “Absolutely say no. Send her back. She needs to tough it out.” What? The wives were a tad more understanding but not solidly so. My daughter’s peers were fairly uniform in their reaction. They were nonplussed. They didn’t seem to see her decision as a failing like their parents did. Decide for the sake of your child and yourself what is the best for your son or daughter and leave it at that. Tune out the naysayers. In my elite suburban environment, stepping off the carousel is verboten. Although I acknowledge this viewpoint, I can’t understand it or embrace it in our circumstance.

It’s Not About You

It is hard as a parent not to feel somewhat responsible for your child’s dissatisfaction with this decision. However, it’s really not about you at all. It’s important not to make it be about you. We raise our children to be independent decision makers- individuals with a healthy sense of self-worth. They don’t come to a decision like this lightly and they make it on their own. They are smart enough to know what they need…and what they don’t need as well. It’s important to understand how your approval factors into this. Many schools have a reasonable amount of unhappy students who can’t tell their parents they want a break. Don’t be one of those parents. Your love and support isn’t contingent on a four-year endurance test.

Resume Builder or Break

We live in an achievement focused world. Many of our children are programmed early on to amass a collection of personal and academic achievements. Maybe this time off is an opportunity to hop off that treadmill (and it is a treadmill-don’t kid yourself). The desire to build huts in Uzbekistan may be great on a resume but maybe a year of self-revelatory thinking may prove to be more valuable for your child. Understand me, I am not in any way demeaning any effort to help others. I do however; question the motivation for it in some cases. In my daughter’s case, she worked two jobs close to home: babysitting and tutoring. No glamour work there. But her most important work was on herself. She surprised me with her respect for her own needs and her respect for the families that employed her. I couldn’t be more proud of her.

Mistake or Opportunity

I favor opportunity hands down. When students have the courage to take a stand for themselves, it’s never a mistake. Candidly, I couldn’t have done what my daughter did. I didn’t have that kind of courage at 19. We are all programmed on a continuum. A, B, C…what happens if you don’t go to D next? For my daughter, it was a year of clear and sometimes “magical” thinking. For me, I realized maybe she wasn’t ready for college right after high school. Hindsight is 20/20, as we all know. But she came to that realization on her own. And as the year progressed, her confidence took root and reached for the sky. She came to the end of the year with her own bank account, an identity all her own, and a new appreciation for the workforce. I couldn’t recommend a year off more enthusiastically. In our case, a stopping point took the form of a compass, ultimately leading my daughter back to herself. She returned to a larger university in Boston and is thriving. Maybe the Europeans know what they are doing. In most countries, a year off is mandatory.

Cathy DonovonCatherine Donovan is a mother, painter, graphic designer and contributing writer to several blogs. She writes about topics relevant to the women of the mid-life generation. Catherine has written three children’s books and is working on a fourth. After a successful career in advertising for 25 years, she also owned a confection company, Milton Point Sweets, whose cookies were featured on the Today Show. Catherine now concentrates on her writing and is a Masters of Fine Arts candidate at Sarah Lawrence College in creative non-fiction and is the mother of a daughter who is a senior in college.


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