By Will McNeese
It’s that time of year. The holidays are over and graduation is right around the corner. The training wheels are coming off and the implementation of your best efforts to raise a successful adult is about to begin!
Sending your teenager to college is perhaps the biggest transition your family has faced over the last decade. Such a transition will have a significant effect on the relationship you have with your child.
You may be experiencing a profound sense of pride in your child’s growth and development into a well-functioning young adult. Perhaps you are feeling apprehension about your child’s decision-making skills, or being so far from home. Maybe your worries are more about how your relationship with your child will change. Regardless of what you are expecting, there are many practical things that can be done to help navigate this transition in a healthy way.
- Prepare ahead of time. It will likely be difficult—begin talking with people, journaling, and discussing with your child the transition that is coming. Healthy transitions usually involve conflicts and hurt feelings; you don’t have to avoid these. Discuss expectations, fears, hopes, and pains that you foresee. Make plans for regular visits and phone calls. Discussing these things ahead of time can make it easier to navigate them once they start happening.
- It’s okay to grieve. Transitions like this mean saying ‘goodbye’ to the way things used to be and finding new happiness, meaning, and routine in the way things are going to be. Even though you know that good things are happening, it’s very normal to feel sadness, regret, or a sense of loss. Don’t fight it. Allow yourself to go through the process and for it to take time. If you are experiencing this in a way that seems unexpectedly strong or long lasting, talk to someone and explore what aspects of your child’s leaving are most painful to grieve.
- Try to keep your emotions differentiated from your child’s. It is normal for you to be sad while your child is thrilled. For your child, this is a huge step in becoming an adult. For you, you are experiencing a separation from the child you carefully and tirelessly raised. It can be tough to tolerate the discrepancy between your emotion and his. Try not to make him responsible for managing your sadness. Also, her excitement is not a sign that she doesn’t love you, but that you have done your job in raising a functioning young adult ready to dive into life’s next challenge!
- Discuss boundaries. A gift that is far greater than providing for their education is making and keeping clear, appropriate, and caring boundaries. Good boundaries allow young adults to experience taking responsibility and ownership of their lives and feeling the impact of their choices. As a therapist, I encounter many parents and children in conflict over issues of boundaries. Often the child wants more freedom and the parents want the child to act more responsibly. One thing that can help the transition to a more adult style relating to your son or daughter is to begin making clear contracts around money and resources you give your child. Examples are, “You can use the car if you… (get a job, maintain a certain GPA, attendance, etc.),” or “We will provide a portion of your tuition if…”
- Be available. Every child is different and will respond to the transition differently. Even in the same family, one child may want to talk every couple of days, and the other would be fine talking every couple of semesters. Find out what your individual relationship needs to stay healthy and connected. Navigating the tension between staying connected and respecting their autonomy is messy but very worthwhile.
In the end, trust your gut. Listen to your parental instincts and check them with your spouse and/or people you trust, and then do what you believe to be in the best interest of your child.
Will McNeese, LPC, LMFTA, is a counselor at Summit Counseling with experience working with families and individuals, including children and adolescents. He can be reached at WillMcNeese@gmail.com.