How to help teens move from high school to the real world

As teenagers get ready to graduate from high school, they need clear expectations from their parents around their plans and money, an expert says.

Clearly discuss money and their plans before graduation day, expert says

Teenagers go through a major life transition when graduating high school, and an expert says they need their parents to help them get through it. (Lucas Jackson/Reuters)

As Grade 12 students prepare to graduate next month, they should be talking to their families about money and future plans, a Calgary parenting expert recommends.

Graduating from high school is an exciting time: a finish line of sorts after years of hard work and studying. But what comes after the celebration can be unclear for many — and have financial and emotional implications for the entire family.

"It catches us all a little bit off guard," Julie Freedman Smith told the Calgary Eyeopener on Monday. "The child is suddenly an adult, then it's all going to change — and there's nothing that changes that quickly."

Julie Freedman Smith of Parenting Power. (Parenting Power)

Freedman Smith is the co-founder of the Calgary-based business, Parenting Power, which offers coaching and courses. She's also the mother of two children, one of whom recently graduated high school.

"It's very similar to the transition from not having a baby to having a baby. We think we're prepared until we're actually in it," she said. "Having been through it last year, I thought we were prepared but we were not completely prepared."

Freedman Smith gave some advice in an interview with Calgary Eyeopener host David Gray, including whether your now-adult child stays home, moves out, goes on to post-secondary education or decides to work or travel.

Q: A high school graduation, it's like a finish line. You think everything is prescribed up until that point. So is it a finish line? Is there a sense for the parents that this is it?

A: I think there is a feeling that this is it but I think for the kids it heightens the idea of, oh my gosh, now what? Now this is really all on me.

We can't expect them to completely have all the planning done, partly because their adult brains, the logic part of their brains, does not actually develop until into their 20s.

It's our responsibility as parents to work with our kids to at least be discussing their plans.

We don't need to be making their plans for them but we do need to get clear about what our expectations are coming up as they become an adult and are living in our home or maybe going off somewhere else, and help them to figure out how they're going to meet our expectations and their own expectations.

Q: What are those expectations?

A: Regardless of whether they are going off to something or staying in your home, money is something that is likely going to be an issue. So who's paying for what?

It doesn't have to be an issue but there may be some changes. I'm not going to be paying for your partying now. You're going to be paying for your partying. And who's paying for the car insurance?

There are financial obligations, especially around school, as well. Are we expecting out kids to be paying a portion of their university or their books?

That's a big one: what are the responsibilities now that you're an adult living in our home.

The responsibilities may change, and so for every family, that's going to be different. But clarify that instead of everybody kind of walking around it and nobody being an adult and talking about it.

That's going to make it easier when we as the parents clarify amongst ourselves and then sit down and have at least one and likely many conversations with our young adult.

Q: What do you say to your kid if they say, you know what, I worked really hard, I finished high school, I want to take a gap year or two or three. How do you deal with that?

A: Every family is going to have a different response to that. And, in fact, in our family, I said, our family has a policy on this and my husband looked at me and said, "We do?" So I knew what it was in my head but we hadn't even actually discussed it.

It's important for the adults in the family to think about that and then to realize that we can't necessarily be forcing our kids into doing whatever we expect.

What we can do is be very clear about how that's going to look. If they're taking a gap year, again, who's paying for it? Are they travelling? Are they earning the money to travel? If they're staying at home, are they playing games in the basement for a year or are we expecting them to work? How many hours a day do we expect them to be looking for a job?

The clearer we can get on these expectations, the easier it is for them to meet them.

Q: Every kid's different. Some, makes perfect sense to carry on to post-secondary, for others, it'd be a waste of time to have them there. But what are the rules around that in your world?

A: Those are all questions that as a family you need to decide, and I wouldn't have that first conversation with everybody. I would like the parents in the family to come to their own conclusions on that first and then bring it to the child.

I'd love for these discussions to start happening in Grade 10 and 11 and moving through as part of the normal family meeting and family conversations

But if there have been no conversations, you don't just say, "So tomorrow, you start paying rent." You say, "So we're going to give you this month to do X and then rent is going to be a certain amount after that and then it's going to increase as you get a job."

Or some families don't charge rent. Some families say, "No, don't worry about it. You pay for this and this and we'll continue to pay for you to live here." So it's really a family decision.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

With files from the Calgary Eyeopener.