I saw a college bound young adult in my practice last week who described needing to create emotional distance between him and his parents in order to make the experience of leaving more manageable and palpable. He effortfully tried to create tension, but his parents would either apologize, try to be supportive or attentive toward him, or generously gave him space to work through whatever he was going through. He readily admitted to me that it wasn’t the reaction he was hoping for. He was hoping to leave frustrated and angered so he didn’t have to feel so sad.
Going on to college can be emotionally charged for parents and children. With the excitement of gaining independence, there’s the disappointment of moving on, and the fear of how that will directly impact familial relationships. Leaving the family home is typically a loss for everyone. Even if a child is eager to leave, and a parents are enthusiastic for their child to broach this new experience and stage in life, there’s still the fear of the unknown.
It unearths parents’ and children’s challenges around loss, separation, independence, coping skills, and anxiety. As parents, we may project our own fears and worries based on our personal experiences. Subconsciously we may assume and fear that our child will repeat the same mistakes that we made.
We perpetually want to protect our children and prevent them from getting into situations or making decisions that will negatively impact them or their futures. Losing direct control and allowing your child to make his or her own choices and mistakes is challenging despite knowing that learning natural consequences can lead to maturity and personal growth.
You are allowing your new young adult to make daily decisions about organizing, socializing, general health, drug and alcohol use, time management, study habits, and finances. You are not there to see what directly goes on and often aren’t at liberty to give ongoing feedback and guidance. The loss of control you feel can be jarring, overwhelming, and anxiety provoking.
This may be an opportune time for you to choose to recalibrate new relationships at home and outside of your home. The goals and hobbies you may have put off can be reinstated and more formative for you. Reconsider how you’ll develop a new relationship with your college kid.
Don’t get caught up in thinking and acting as if your child is gone forever. Your young adult will most definitely be back, even if just to ask for something needed (typically money!) or to visit periodically.
Saying the initial goodbye, can go several ways. For some it’s a long drawn out tear fest and for others it’s a cool and quick goodbye. Both are perfectly typical, and for others, there’s a variation of the two extremes.
Once your young adult is settled in, it’s charting onto new territory as to how much contact should be maintained. Try not to constantly call, text, email, Facebook chat, tweet, IM or anything else. Call periodically to check up and offer to be there when your child wants company or support.
Most kids will eventually call or text when they are walking to and from class, want some company when they are feeling a bit bored or isolated, and/or there’s some injustice or drama ensuing and they want a sounding board or to just vent. Calls can often be random followed by quick hang ups or longer calls can be drawn out and dramatic.
When you do speak to them, try not to continually lecture and belabor them regarding your set of expectations. Kids need to know that they can reach out anytime, no matter what, and that they will be loved and supported unconditionally, even if you don’t always agree with their choices.
In general, take their lead. They’ll be convinced and try to convince you that they know much better than you and they’ll convey that they want to figure things out on their own. This is truly their moment.
Your need to be needed must be secondary to their need to be curious, exploratory, doing things at their own pace, and sometimes fumble in the process. Standing by and observing this, may not always be so easy but it’s necessary.
From my experience, inevitably even the most bereft parents successfully work through this developmental stage. They typically recognize the need for separation, grow to appreciate it, and learn to see it as a healthy and necessary process.
The number one sentiment I always hear is “Where has the time gone?” It does pass quickly and you don’t want to be left with lingering regrets. Be sure to take the time to be present with your young adult, expressing love, support, and the desire to remain connected as she or he ventures into this exciting and memorable stage in life.
About the Author
Michelle P. Maidenberg, Ph.D., MPH, LCSW-R, CGP is the President/Clinical Director of Westchester Group Works, a Center for Group Therapy in Harrison, NY and maintains a private practice.
She is also the Co-Founder and Clinical Director of “Thru My Eyes” a nonprofit 501c3 organization that offers free clinically-guided videotaping to chronically medically ill individuals who want to leave video legacies for their children and loved ones.
Dr. Maidenberg is Adjunct Faculty at New York University (NYU) in their graduate program in the Silver School of Social Work. She is a Board of Directors member at The Boys & Girls in Mount Vernon. She is a Huffington Post blogger and the author of the book “Free Your Child From Overeating” 53 Mind-Body Strategies For Lifelong Change.
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