Eight strategies for managing your teen’s ‘gap year’ experience

More teens are turning to a 'gap year' experience to bridge the divide between high school and college. With the right strategy in place, that year can be a successful one.

Andre Penner/AP/File
A youth checks his cell phone in Sao Paulo, Brazil, Thursday, Dec. 17, 2015. Many teenagers are turning to a gap year experience after high school, but it's good to have a strategy in place.

An increasing number of U.S. students are participating in a “gap year,” in which they take a break from their studies to explore the world, often right after graduating from high school. The benefits for students can include personal growth, increased maturity and a stronger sense of what their interests are.

What students do during this one-year break from school can vary widely; it can include taking part in highly organized programs targeting student interests such as art history or wilderness exploration, or it can involve loosely structured programs or foreign travel.

Managing a gap year can be stressful for parents, however, financially and otherwise. Whatever the specifics of a student’s experience, it’s a time when a teen is not in school but not in the “real world” — and therefore still dependent on parents for support.

Here are some practical tips on how parents and students can best manage the needs of “gappers” at home and abroad.

1. Pay attention to currency exchange fees

Access to money and currency exchange are crucial considerations for young people traveling abroad. Most banks and credit unions offer poor exchange rates and charge various hidden fees, so consider shopping around for an international money transfer specialist to save money. Many firms also offer the opportunity to lock in favorable exchange rates, which can protect users from adverse currency movements.

2. Research overseas employment opportunities

For those on a gap year who feel they need more money during their time abroad — or who want to enrich their experience by learning what it’s like to be a working person in a foreign country — having a job can be fulfilling, according to Sara Haberman, founder of AdmissionSense, a college counseling service.

But it’s important to do plenty of research first, because every country has different rules about foreign workers and some jobs may require special training. Teaching English in a foreign country, for example, might require taking a course and getting certification from a recognized organization.

3. Hone budgeting skills

A gap year offers parents a good opportunity to work with their children on their budgeting and personal finance skills. Janice Rossman, a nurse in New York, saw her daughter repeatedly go over their established budget during her year in Israel. They discovered that “hidden expenses” — things beyond the established costs of rent, utilities and food — were to blame for the budget-busting. “We discovered it was mostly ‘Ubering,’ ” she says, referring to the popular transportation app. This led to a productive discussion of ways to make use of other transportation options to keep costs in line.

4. Learn from other ‘gappers’

Students who are going abroad and their parents should do significant research on each country in advance, not just online but by reaching out to other students who have lived there. Consult gap-year message boards that provide information on cultural, financial, legal and other issues.

5. Break the year into chunks

For parents of students who are seeking a more free-form gap-year experience rather than a tightly planned program, the idea of an entire year of unstructured time can produce anxiety. Rather than trying to plan out the whole year with your child, consider taking it three months at a time and setting goals that fuel his or her interests but lead to achievements.

These goals can include finding a job, taking a few college or online courses, pursuing interests the child may not have time for as a full-time college student, or taking particular trips. By breaking the year down into manageable chunks and setting short-term goals, the gap year can feel more manageable and end up being more productive.

6. Keep up the networking

Spending a gap year backpacking in a remote part of the world might be a wonderfully enriching experience, but it also could separate students from the types of social contacts that may be needed when they make their re-entry. To guard against that, students should take the time to network while out of school — setting up LinkedIn profiles and staying in touch via social media to grow and maintain contacts. If they are staying at home during their gap year, they should consider working or volunteering in their community to establish connections that may be helpful in the future.

7. Watch out for reverse culture shock

After several months living abroad, many kids acculturate to their temporary home in terms of daily life, food and social norms, so they may experience culture shock when they return. Students returning to the U.S. may have trouble relating to the friends they once spent a lot of time with, or they may find that activities they used to engage in feel trivial. This may lead to symptoms of depression, anxiety, restlessness and even panic, Haberman says.

Parents should prepare to spot these symptoms and provide support during the adjustment. Once students are back in school, parents can urge them to establish a relationship with a counselor, teacher or other mentor to help ease the transition.

8. Go easy during re-entry

A whopping 90% of American gap-year students continue on to college within six months to a year of their return. But for those who are still not ready to pursue higher education, parents should treat the break as an initial “cooling-off period” and provide a judgment-free zone to let kids re-examine their options. Though this might cause parents anxiety, some kids just need a little more time to decide on their path.

It’s important, though, that post gap-year students are doing something productive if they’re not going back to school right away, whether that’s working or volunteering. It’s also wise for families to commit to a time frame for this next phase and to explore options, which can range from vocational school to college.

This article first appeared at NerdWalletLearn more about Jeff on NerdWallet’s 'Ask an Advisor.'

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