When Madeleine McDonald finished her last HSC exam in November 2015, the world was supposed to automatically transition into clichés: it was to become her oyster, land at her feet and be all that she dreamed of, a host of destinations waiting to be explored.
But, contrary to what people had told her about how wonderful she would feel when she surpassed all her secondary studies, the transition from school to the ‘real world’ wasn’t as easy as she expected.
“Going from a confined little time frame to a head space where it’s okay not to have the next five years planned is really difficult,” says McDonald.
"It takes time to learn the difference between who you want to be, and the external identity that consumed you during the school years.”
The plan had always been for McDonald to go to university post-high school. However, she found life adjusting to life after school confronting.
“The biggest adjustment for me [moving from school to university] was the lack of structure and accountability, and ‘optional classes’ gives you morality-crushing decisions to make.”
McDonald worked through the first few months of her new life at uni with her parents’ support, and things slowly started to fall into place.
“Mum and dad provided a safe and welcoming home environment, and helped me towards becoming more independent by encouraging me out of my comfort zone.”
“They were always willing to listen, didn’t put expectations on me and got excited when I told them all the wonderful things I’d learnt.”
“When secondary school finishes, some find it difficult adjusting to the uncertainty and pressures of decision making about the future."
Not every parent is as accepting as McDonald’s and not every teen adjusts to life after the HSC and high school so smoothly.
Parenting expert with a background in secondary education, Martine Oglethorpe says the end of year 12 and the completion of exams can be a time of celebration and relief, combined with anxiety.
“When secondary school finishes, some find it difficult adjusting to the uncertainty and pressures of decision making about the future,” says Oglethorpe.
“Even those enrolled in university or tertiary education can find it difficult adjusting to different expectations and study skills with less guidance and structure."
For those who are unsure of their next step, it can be even more confusing.
Oglethorpe says it’s important for parents to recognise their teen’s challenges and be ready to offer support and help. The best way to do this is by suggesting some ideas about what they may like to do and how they may go about it.
“Do it in a way that involves them in the decision making and ensures that their concerns and ideas are heard,” she says. “Try to avoid giving them a lecture on what they must do.”
Regardless, Oglethorpe says that it’s perfectly okay for parents to insist their children have some sort of plan on how to spend their time after school finishes.
“If tertiary education is not an option, then looking for a job or travel may be the alternative,” she suggests.
“Even doing some volunteer work or community work for some of the time can ensure that they’re not left to while away the year or become depressed.” And depression could be a real risk for teens post school.
“Try to avoid giving them a lecture on what they must do.”
Clinical psychologist, Sally-Anne McCormack, says that while there’s no formal diagnosis of post school depression, it’s not unusual to see it.
The symptoms that may present include a lack of motivation, difficulty with sleep (either too much or not enough), changes in behaviour, withdrawal from friends, family or activities previously enjoyed and mood swings.
But it’s not just depression that can result during this transitional period. It could also signal the start of some unfavourable behaviours.
“Without the skills to enter the ‘real world’, some teens are so overwhelmed that they develop poor habits in order to deal with their new found ‘freedom’,” says McCormack.
Such habits may include the avoidance of study (even when enrolled in a course), drinking to excess and losing contact with friends whose timetables are different to theirs.
Tim O'Connor, Acting CEO of Refugee Council of Australia says people seeking asylum and refugees on temporary visas can also find the post-school to ‘life’ transition tough.
Students from a culturally and linguistically diverse background may face financial barriers to further education at TAFE or University. Finding employment can also prove difficult for someone who doesn’t have networks or for whom English is a second language.
These are issues, he says, which need to be addressed.
“The students themselves are already doing everything within their power to succeed despite the obstacles that they face,” says O’Connor.
“There needs to be improvements to the structures around them, such as an end to temporary protection, and better access to educational support in order to ameliorate the situation for students of refugee background.”
"It’s never too late to change career paths.”
Important life advice
McCormack notes that in the first few weeks and months post HSC, it’s really important that parents keep track of their teens, while appreciating their need to ‘let their hair down’.
“Parents can feel helpless in the sense that they’re unsure how many boundaries to enforce and how much freedom to allow,” says McCormack.
“While accepting our teens’ desire for ‘letting loose’, we’re still parents and must continue to implement boundaries as to behavioural expectations, common courtesies, and responsibilities.”
As far as talking to teens about their options and career aspirations, McCormack says that we need to listen to them, offer guidance and unconditional support.
It’s also imperative that we don’t nag, preach or expect them to do a job or study that ‘we’ want them to do.
“We parents have had our chance to decide on our careers, so it’s now time to let them make their own decisions,” says McCormack.
“Even if we believe that they’re wrong in their choices, the choice must be their own.
"If they feel that this is not the best pathway for them, they’ll come to that realisation themselves, and it’s never too late to change career paths.”
If this article has raised issues for you or you would like to seek support, contact Lifeline on 13 11 14.