Five Stages of High School Graduation and College Drop-Off

Senior year of high school and the build-up to college drop-off can make one feel like Alice in Wonderland. Plopped into a strange world where nothing is as you knew it, and time is a riddle to be solved.

In this confusing, alternate universe, you will find the five stages of senior year of high school: inexplicably both the longest and shortest year of your life. 

Five phases of senior year of high school. (Maureen Stiles with her senior!)

5 stages of senior year of high school

1. Denial

This phase begins the moment senior portraits land in your mailbox. You will stare at the person in the photos looking impossibly grown up and feel a strange detachment from the creature you live with.

Much like you regard the perfect picture that comes with the frame when you buy it, the word “graduate” conjures up images of kindergarten or middle school, not high school—not yet. Even the senior parent email makes the time until graduation seems eternal. Months and months of listed activities and deadlines are a visual time warp.

Those commitments for next May and June seem like a lifetime away in August. “We have plenty of time,” you murmur to yourself, ignoring the tug at your heart. At the moment, you will fully believe that statement because anything else would be too overwhelming to contemplate. 

2. Anger

There are many theories regarding “soiling the nest,” but none matter when it is happening to you. You only know that you want it to stop. Pronto. Until it does, the desire to meet your angry and often ungrateful child with the burning rage of a thousand suns will tempt you night and day.

However, no one needs more anger, and being the adult in the room is always wise. So you are forced to learn coping skills. Coping leads us directly into the next phase…

3. Bargaining

In this stage, we revert to toddler parenting tactics. No logic can be assigned to high school seniors, so applying reason is a fool’s mission. Keeping the status quo becomes the new gold standard in the house.

You will swear to share your hidden stash of chocolate as a trade-off for having a peaceful dinner. You will promise to watch more PBS and less reality television if you can get through a shopping excursion without drama. You will give anything to get a glimpse of the child you knew before this 12th-grade transformation stole their personality and upended the household. 

4. Depression 

And one day, it hits you; they are leaving soon, and none of the other unpredictable lunacy matters anymore. Forget everything I said before; I love you no matter how mean and misguided you are.”

You will spend days surrounded by crumpled tissues, sniffling as you browse baby pictures in search of the perfect choice for senior tributes. Your sentimentality warps your perspective making for some serious revisionist history. Your mind, for instance, twists a hellish six-day lice infestation odyssey into oodles of time spent together with no whining, even when combing out toxic, tangled hair and relishing your hero status for not being too skeeved out to tackle the task.

This Disney version of your life tortures you. Listening to the car radio is an emotional rollercoaster, and you develop the habit of staring at your child as they sleep. The realization that you can’t freeze time comes slowly and painfully, but when it does, it sets you and your child free. 

5. Acceptance  

This final phase serves you well as graduation approaches and beyond. Like a new eye prescription reveals the same world more clearly, your focus is sharp and the path apparent. This is the reward for 18 years of patience and the hard work of parenting as you and your child settle into new roles.  

This begins a new relationship and appreciation for the emerging adult. There is no promise of a fairy tale ending; plot twists will be plentiful. Yet, as parents, we are ready for the next chapter, turning the page with anticipation and a wistful sigh. 

More Great Reading:

To Parents of High School Seniors: 9 Important Reminders

About Maureen Stiles

Maureen Stiles is a Washington DC based freelance journalist, columnist and editor. With over a decade of published work in the parenting and humor sector, Maureen has reached audiences around the globe. In addition to published works, she has been quoted in the Washington Post and The New York Times on topics surrounding parenting and family life. Maureen is the author of The Driving Book for Teens and a contributor to the book Grown and Flown: How to Support Your Teen, Stay Close as a Family, and Raise Independent Adults as well as regularly featured on Today's Parenting Community and Grown and Flown.

Read more posts by Maureen

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