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Jonathan Muskat
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Gap year students and their mental health

What is developmentally normal during my child's Israel experience and what is a red flag that help is needed?
Illustrative: Taglit Birthright participants visit at the Western Wall in the Old City of Jerusalem on August 18, 2014. (Flash90)
Illustrative: Taglit Birthright participants visit at the Western Wall in the Old City of Jerusalem on August 18, 2014. (Flash90)

In the past few weeks and in the coming week, many parents have tearfully parted or will tearfully part from their children who are off to spend their gap year between high school and college in Yeshiva or seminary in Israel. The gap year in Israel holds so much promise for growth in our children’s lives and yet it can present numerous challenges. What should parents expect from their children’s experience and how should parents best parent their children during this experience? My wife, Yael, is the Dean of the Mental Health and Wellness and the Director of the Counseling Center at Yeshiva University and she spoke about this topic a few months ago at DRS High School to parents of 12th grade students. Here is a summary of some of the questions that she addressed that may be helpful for parents of gap year students:

  1. What changes can I expect to see in my late teen as he/she enters adulthood?

Your child is reaching the stage of emerging adulthood. This stage is characterized as a time of exploration, a time to discover one’s skills and passions, a time of focus on the self, and a time of instability with new opportunities and new challenges. Therefore, the developmental goals of this stage are achieving independence, achieving a sense of identity and learning to manage emotions.

  1. How does the gap year address the emotional needs of young adults?

The gap year allows for some exploration with a safety net. Children can explore and learn about themselves with proper supervision. They are provided opportunities to become self-directed, to develop their relationship skills with people, to build resilience and to define and develop their passions. They step out of their comfort zone and they challenge themselves. Studies show a higher rate of college retention for students after a gap year because during the gap year, they learn greater academic diligence, focus, resilience and responsibility.

  1. I am paying all of this money for what is supposed to be an amazing year for my child. Why is my child struggling?

Gap year students can face a whole host of issues. There are new and more demanding learning requirements and they must manage their own expectations. They experience a change in their relationship with their parents and peers in a new setting. They may experience challenges to their currently held beliefs and values. Any of these issues could result in increased anxiety, stress and insecurity.

  1. What is developmentally normal during a gap year experience and what is a red flag that help is needed?

You should be concerned about your child’s mental health if your child exhibits any of the following behaviors:

  • Social withdrawal
  • Marked change in appearance or hygiene
  • Excessive self-criticism
  • More tearful than non-tearful calls home
  • Talk of hopelessness
  • Excessive fatigue or a lethargic mood
  • Extreme increases in energy or rapid speech
  • Inability to think and concentrate or a dramatic change in grades
  • References to suicide or self-harm
  • Behavior that causes your child’s Yeshiva or seminary to be concerned
  1. How do I know when to intervene and when to just listen? What is my role as a parent?

This is a very difficult and complex question and it depends on so many specific facts and circumstances. In general, you should primarily listen to and validate your child and offer tips and solutions when your child is ready. Here are some general “do’s” and “don’t’s” for helping your child.

Do:

  • Have a conversation with your child about his or her goals before your child leaves for Yeshiva or seminary
  • Create a support system with teachers and relatives
  • Stay in touch with your child throughout the year
  • Encourage your child
  • Be realistic about your expectations for your child
  • Allow space for your child to grow
  • Be prepared for change or no change for your child
  • Communicate with the Yeshiva or seminary that your child attends about any concerns before the year begins
  • Stay in communication with the Yeshiva or seminary throughout the year
  • Trust the Yeshiva or seminary
  • Understand the need for separation and that there are ups and downs and challenges due to separation from parents

Don’t:

  • Panic
  • Tell your child what to do
  • Take over and assume responsibility
  • Insist on frequent visits or phone calls
  • Press your child on what he or she will do after Yeshiva or seminary or how your child will integrate back in the United States after the gap year

If you truly are concerned about your child’s mental health, then reach out to the Yeshiva or seminary, talk to your child directly about your concerns, try to find a competent therapist to help your child and try to make the process of your child going to therapy smooth and easy so that he or she will be encouraged to go.

Your child is going to have an amazing gap year growing both spiritually and emotionally! There are going to be ups and downs. Hopefully, some of these suggestions will be helpful for how you, as a parent, can help your child navigate the challenges and take advantage of the opportunities that the gap year provides him or her.

About the Author
Jonathan Muskat is the Rabbi of the Young Israel of Oceanside.
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