Counselor Julie Tracy-Prieboy knows that transitions can be anxiety-inducing. We sought her advice for students and parents embarking on new chapters in their lives.
As a counselor at Oliverian, Julie Tracy-Prieboy brings wisdom, compassion, and a focus on vulnerability to her work helping students succeed.
Graduation can be a scary time full of stressful changes, so we caught up with Julie to learn more about managing transitions in ways that are constructive and healthy. Whether you’re a graduating senior, an underclassman, or a parent, Julie offers practical advice for navigating the unknown.
Q: Why is graduation — and transition in general — so inherently anxiety-inducing for teens?
A: One of the biggest concerns for teens is the sheer number of unknowns that graduation represents. They know what the academic setting looks like because they’ve been doing that for many years. They know how it works. For us as a boarding school, students know what the expectations are and how to operate within our system.
During the summer following graduation, most students will head home — but things will have changed when they get there. What will it mean to have graduated high school and be a young adult? Does it mean, as in most family systems, that you revert back to your role within the family? Maybe that’s the role of the troublemaker, the comedian, or the attention-seeker. Whatever the role, it can be anxiety-inducing to be trapped in that role — especially if you’ve grown and evolved during your time away.
Q: How can teens navigate re-entry at home?
A: I often talk about areas of growth that you can think of as concentric circles: the center is your comfort zone, beyond that is a growth zone, and beyond that is the panic zone. No growth can happen in the comfort zone or the panic zone. You’re in the comfort zone when you go back home into the old family system, where you might not have chores, or have to make meals or have any responsibilities — you just get to hang out. On the other hand, when you’re in the panic zone, all you can do is fight, flight, or freeze. You can’t access the wisdom you’ve gained at school, and you can’t even seek out that wisdom, because you have very little control over your panic response. So when students are transitioning, we focus on keeping them in the growth zone.
Anxiety can be a positive thing when it creates eustress, a positive form of stress that tells your body and brain that something is going on, but doesn’t throw you into that fight, flight, or freeze dynamic. These anxiety-producing periods are great opportunities to practice how to be attentive to stress levels and manage them so that you don’t get into the panic zone. It’s also important, within the family system, that parents don’t go into the fixer or helper mode where they’re doing everything for their child.
Q: What are some tangible practices that teens can use to monitor their stress levels and to pull back if they’re moving toward the panic zone or the comfort zone?
A: As a therapist, I always tell people to have a support system. You can’t gain perspective on your feelings of anxiety if you’re isolated or if your circle of trust is limited to just one parent or one friend. It’s important to have a variety of people around you as sources of support and wisdom. These might include friends, a mentor, a boss, or even a personal trainer.
It’s also important to create space for the things that allow you to pause, gain perspective, or ask for support if you need it. Whether you find that through faith and spirituality, exercise, meditation, preparing a meal for your friends or family, or gardening, make sure to participate in activities that help you create mental space.
Q: What advice would you give parents as their teen transitions from child to young adult? How can they intervene in an appropriate way?
A: I have three critical takeaways for adults throughout their teenager’s transition:
The first one is: ensure you have the companionship and support of a partner, family, or peer group.
The period when your child is transitioning from high school to a more adult, independent role — whatever that looks like — is a difficult one for parents. Before you can enter into open and honest conversation with your teen, you need to have a support system of your own, whether that’s your partner, your own parents, or a friend.
The second one is: establish a collaborative, co-creative relationship with your child.
Instead of stepping into the fixer or helper role, it’s important for parents to collaborate and co-create a different kind of relationship with their child. Take some intentional space together, like a weekly jog or coffee date. It doesn’t have to be formal. Use that time to be honest about what you’re struggling with, and in doing so, invite your child into a different kind of parent-child relationship.
The final piece is: push your child into a greater sense of responsibility.
Up until this point, most parents have been trying to protect their child from knowing about finances, job status, or even personal health concerns. This is a time to start changing this, not so drastically that you dump everything on your kid, but in a gradual way. For example, you could tell your teen, “Hey, I’m worried that we may not be able to cover your car insurance next year, so we will need you to help us cover that expense.” That’s inviting the child into a greater sense of responsibility without overwhelming them.
Practically, you may need to step away from the way you like things done. If, for example, you invite your child to make dinner once a week, you may end up with a messy kitchen, a burnt pan, or a less than delicious dinner. However, that child is learning how to be independent and care for a family. It may be inefficient or even annoying, but it’s also an important step for that child to learn how to gain independence.
Q: Do you have any advice for students who may not know what their next step after graduation is?
A: The college setting can be a known entity that provides certain expectations. But students who don’t have that structure can still create a set of clear expectations for themselves. That could mean paying for certain bills, and with that comes the responsibilities of how to do so. Or maybe the young adult’s responsibilities involve learning a new set of skills through an internship. Perhaps the expectations are that the young adult will live independently, or that they’ll live at home with increased responsibilities in that setting. The post-graduation transition looks a little bit different for students without set plans, but I think it’s helpful to approach it by setting expectations and being clear about the differences between the expectations for a child and those for a young adult, because they should be very different.
Q: What advice do you have for students who are returning home when it comes to sharing their experiences at school with their parents?
A: It doesn’t have to be as complicated as sharing the past six months of their Instagram feed, but it should be more meaningful than that. Parents should look for simple but meaningful ways to learn more about their child’s experiences, such as asking to hear about some of the highlights and some of the things that were tough. This can take place through conversation, through looking at photos together, or through making future plans. Parents might ask, “Hey, when we come for Parents’ Weekend, can you show me pictures of the places you’ve been that you want us to visit so that we can be part of that?” or, “What were your favorite things to do? Would that be a good activity for when your younger brother or sister comes out?”
Boarding school is a little subculture with its own cultural norms, so you might try to recreate one part of it at home. If having family dinner in the dorm on Thursday nights worked well for your child, perhaps you do that at home as well, and engage your child in how they participated in that activity. That way, you’re mirroring their boarding school experience while also giving enough space for your child to stay connected, because transitions home and back to school are always going to be difficult.