The golden rules of gap years

As Year 12 students look forward to 2022, some may be considering a gap year. But, writes Dr Judith Locke, it shouldn't be without some agreed guidelines in place.

It’s been a tricky year for many but particularly for Year 12 students across the country. COVID has stopped many typical senior milestones or curtailed them. Additionally, students have had reduced contact with peers, and a different study experience. You could understand why some are a little overwhelmed – particularly as they lead into exams.

It seems a few of them are thinking about taking a moment following school completion to think about their next move. A gap year might make sense to work out where their passion lies after a year of disruption – or worse still – everyday sameness.

Taking a year off can be a great idea for students who have just finished school and trying to work out if they want to study and, if so, what topic.  Some might not feel ready to take on adult-like responsibilities and need a year to gain some maturity or perspective.

But gap years can also be problematic unless you follow some basic guidelines. I suggest the following:

If not studying, they should be working

Ideally, your child will work for a year in their gap year. That might be easier said than done. The economy will still be recovering and gaining a full-time job might be tricky. Nevertheless, they should do their best to secure full-time employment or close to it.

To gain work, they might need to move to the locations where jobs are situated. Moving out of home, might be good for their developing independence. Even the defence force offers gap year placements where a ‘Year 13’ person can work in the navy, army, or air force in a role where they can get paid and experience what life is like in these careers.

If your family’s financial circumstances allow, your adult child might do some volunteer work in lieu of a paid position. But this role must be a permanent commitment to the organisation – they can’t just turn up when they feel like it.

Related article: Should I take a gap year? Things to consider, by careers expert Helen Green.


They need to be living like adults

Parenting involves the responsibility for paying for your child’s living costs until the end of their schooling. Some parents extend that to be financially responsible for their child until the end of their post-school study. In many ways, a gap year, where they live at home, is an extension to the ‘contract’.

So, they need to be appreciative and show maturity by being an adult in the home. This will mean they should be taking on grownup responsibility for chores, being considerate of others in the house, and not still acting like a petulant teenager.

In fact, if they can’t find full-time work, you might step up their responsibilities even further in the home. This will have them work more for the additional financial responsibility you have taken on. They should also be paying board if they are earning money.

They need a full-time responsibility

Whatever they do – be it a gap year or study – it’s essential that the adult child is doing something not just some work and a lot of gaming or partying. The basic rule should be that they have a 40-hour load in something, be that a full-time job or full-time study. Or part-time work combined with part-time study.

This is very important for their mental health. Sitting around and having lots of thinking time rarely bestows favours on anyone’s wellbeing.

Being busy and productive gives them a much better chance of feeling good about themselves and their contribution to the world, and their relationships with the people who are important to them. This will help them feel even better about themselves after their ‘year off’.

Takeaway for parents

There are ways you can support them in their final months of Year 12:

  • Be curious about what they’re planning to do after school ends, but don’t put too much pressure on them or talk about it endlessly.
  • You can help, but don’t take over the process or actively seek things for them to do.
  • They should be interested enough to do their own research on the options.
  • Be clear about what the parameters are, such as how life will be if they live at home, or an ‘earn or learn’ rule.
  • This clarity might motivate them to make some decisions.

About Dr Judith Locke

Dr Judith Locke is a Clinical Psychologist and child wellbeing specialist who presents sessions for parents and teachers at schools around Australia. For more of Judith’s work read her parenting books, The Bonsai Child or The Bonsai Student. You can also follow her Facebook pages The Bonsai Child or Confident and Capable.

© Judith Locke

This article originally appeared in the Sunday Mail on 17 October 2021, and is published here with the kind permission of Judith.

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