April marks the month when most college-bound seniors finalize their choice for where they will be heading next year.
Not coincidentally, this is also the time when most seniors begin—if they haven’t already—to pull away from their family. It’s natural and normal for even the most even-tempered and upbeat child to express some surliness, criticize family life, and become more private, even secretive.
This natural and understandable attempt on the young person’s part to individuate can cause immense pain and confusion for the family members who are about to be “left behind.”
Nevertheless, these last, precious few months of family time together can also be a time of laughter, remembrance and reconnection. As a former family therapist and a parent who has launched two of my three kids, here are some heartfelt tips which might make for smoother sailing.
Even when your child seems to be shouting, “I can’t wait to get out of here,” try to find lots of opportunities to express your unwavering love. Acknowledge special attributes and qualities, which can provide a much needed ego boost.
For instance: “Your roommate is so lucky because you are so friendly and welcoming,” or “I am going to miss your wicked sense of humor.”
While there may be no overt signs of fear, uncertainty, or confusion about this life passage, you can be sure that your child is experiencing those feelings to some degree. Continue to talk with enthusiasm and optimism about the many exciting opportunities which lie ahead, but also find those quiet moments to discuss some of the inevitable fears of the unknown and model that it is okay to be vulnerable.
Share some personal memories when you personally struggled with new experiences and challenges. I’ve told my own kids about how I was so homesick my first few months of freshman year that I would climb into the bushes in front of my dorm to cry privately.
Particularly if your child is the youngest or an “only,” be careful that he or she doesn’t sense that the “empty nest” is going to be a miserable, meaningless place for the parent(s) left behind. This can saddle your child with an undue burden of guilt, and in extreme cases, can contribute to the phenomenon of “flunking out to save mom.”
Model some of the life skills you hope your child will deploy as he or she goes off to university. Have you made a new friend lately? How about attending a talk or lecture on a topic of interest? Discuss a world or national issue at the dinner table.
Technology makes it easy to learn about the daily life your child will soon experience. Read some issues of the college newspaper online which will give you a sense of burning issues on campus and special events and opportunities.
Information gleaned from the college’s website can lead to some great conversation starters: “The study abroad opportunities in Latin America look phenomenal. Is that something you might consider?” or, “There are so many alternative spring break opportunities: I know you’ve wanted to do service work in Appalachia,” etc.
Many colleges post available on-campus jobs. Invite your child to look at these. This is a good time to discuss your expectations about a part-time job to cover personal expenses and/or contribute to tuition.
Again, share your own experiences. I’ve told my own kids about the many on-campus jobs I had, including the grossest—cleaning toilets because it paid the best and I was saving to go to Europe.
Familiarize yourself with the services of the student counseling center and encourage your child to seek out its services for any behavioral or emotional struggles (including drug and alcohol abuse).
Reports indicate that record numbers of college students are experiencing anxiety, depression, and other mental health problems. Some experts cite the lack of resilience of today’s young adults who have been sheltered from adversity and constantly praised by “helicopter parents.”
Others blame the high pressure “race to nowhere” academic treadmill which characterizes contemporary high school culture. Whatever the case, your child can only benefit from hearing that asking for help is positive and proactive.
Putting together a photo scrapbook of your child’s life with comments and reflections can be as meaningful for your child as it is for you. My late husband wrote a beautiful and moving poem that extolled his love for his daughter, which was cherished by that very beloved child during her college years and almost two decades later.
Whenever possible, find moments to laugh with your child about this challenging time—and seek comfort and consolation from friends and relatives who know what you are going through. It does get better!
One last suggestion, which can bring reassurance now and in the years ahead, is to develop a personal prayer or mantra which you say to yourself several times a day, such as, “I wish for my child: expanded knowledge, new skills, and meaningful connections with others.”
After all, isn’t that what parents really want for their almost-adult child?