Nowadays it doesn’t take long for an idea, phrase, or craze to go viral. For parents trying to keep up with the hashtag du jour, the term on the tip of every young person’s tongue right now is “gap year.” So, what is a “gap year,” what do you need to do to decide if it is right for your young adult child and how can you make it work for your family?
Gap year is a term that typically refers to an academic year taken by a student as a break between high school graduation and higher education. Gap years can be structured in the form of an organized program or can be a personal pause. Young adults are inclined to take a break before starting college for various reasons. Some kids feel a lack of readiness to commit to a college major or future profession and some feel a strong desire to travel or see the world in a way they won’t be able to do once they are tied to a family or career. Still, others need a gap year to save financially to avoid the pressure of college debt. Whereas, in other cases, parents may elect for their child to take a gap year if maturity or responsibility are issues.
If your child has suggested they may be considering a gap year before college, as a parent you may be overwhelmed with your own feelings on the topic. Here are some ways to get you and your child organized to approach the topic in a way that will work for both your (adult or almost adult) child and yourself:
- Let go of unmet expectations
- As a parent you may feel a sense of failure or guilt if your child is expressing a lack of readiness for college. It is normal to experience unpleasant feelings like loss or failure if your family is not experiencing the same developmental milestones as other peers in your community.
- At the same time, many young adults start college and either struggle with anxiety or depression, substance abuse or misuse, and/or cannot meet the demands of college classes or other responsibilities. Many kids may start school at 18 years old but not all of those finish, or finish in 4 years flat. If your child is suggesting that they may need more time it may benefit you (and them) both emotionally and financially to honor this request.
- Set reasonable goals and expectations
- A year off does not have to mean a year off. Many parents fear their kid spending the year bumming on the couch or partying with friends on perpetual spring break.
- First, work with your child to identify what is the purpose of and goal for their gap year. For example, if your child wants to use this time to save money then this is the goal of the gap year. If your child wants to spend the year traveling, then help them to create a more reasonable, future focused goal like “Learn about other cultures,” “Identify strengths and weaknesses,” “Learn about professions and opportunities.”
- Next, break down objectives of how to do this. Include who will do what. Think about what you want the year to look like. How will it be financed? How will it be measured? Talked about? Create a list of expectations, one for what a good gap year looks like to you but also expectations for how money will be spent, and what to do if objectives are not met. In some families, goals may be broken down to typical daily or weekly objectives like reasonable use of the house (i.e. wake up and quiet times), reasonable use of money resources (i.e. personal groceries versus family’s shared groceries). Keep in mind, your child is an adult so there will be limits you can set (on your resources and behaviors) and limits you cannot enforce (their behavior). You have to be prepared to control the things you can and let go of the things you cannot.
- Predict and prepare for problems
- Plan a weekly or bimonthly meeting to discuss how it’s going. Plan to talk about what have they learned? What are your concerns? What are you proud of or encouraged about?
- Think in the beginning how you will handle certain things that might come up like what to do if your child would like to take longer than a year, how you will respond if your (adult) child is not spending their time/money in a way you think they should.
- You may consider enlisting a family therapist to help guide these family conversations. Family therapists know how to teach appropriate communication and problem-solving skills and can help with boundaries, roles and age appropriate expectations in adult families.
- American College Health Association. National College Health Assessment II. Spring 2017 Reference Group Executive Summary.
- Patterson, Gerald R. and Marion Forgatch. Parents and Adolescents Living Together. Part 2: Family Problem Solving. 2nd Research Press; 2nd edition (January 15, 2005)
- Patterson, Gerald R. and Marion Forgatch. Parents and Adolescents Living Together Part 1: The Basics. 2nd Research Press; 2nd edition (January 15, 2005)
About the Author
Carrie is licensed and trained to provide individual, couple, and family therapy. Areas of interest include a variety of relationship issues including adult family conflict, family conflicts between parents and teens, relationship and marriage counseling, co-parenting following divorce, step-parenting, peer relationships, emotional regulation, anxiety, and depression. Specific training in Parent Management Training-Oregon (PMT-O Specialist); a behavior management technique for parents to utilize with children to prevent and reduce behavior issues in children age 7 to 17.
*Photos courtesy of Birmingham Maple Clinic