In late August and early September magazines are filled with ‘Back to School’ articles, and stores are filled with ‘Back to School’ sales. For younger kids, it means new lunch boxes and pencils. For older ones; SATs, clubs, and all things related to college. If you are starting this school year with a High School senior you will be particularly stressed with college preparations and those empty nest feelings.
It occurred to me recently that we don’t spend enough time coaching families or initiating conversations about the emotional piece of having a high school senior. You can find dozens of articles about saving for college, how to choose the right college and what to prepare your child for when it comes to campus partying, and safety. But what about the heavy emotions that plague parents as they realize this is ‘the last year’ their child might live with them? And furthermore, what about the emotions of the child as they think about being on their own, away from everything familiar?
A few years ago, I worked with a young client who was a high school senior and experiencing her first serious relationship. She and her boyfriend were in love and had plans to go to different colleges in the fall. What plagued her the most at that time was the sadness she felt for the inevitable separation; not from her parents, but from her boyfriend. Her parents were anxious and sad thinking about their daughter going away and pressuring her to spend more time at home. She wanted to spend as much time as possible with her boyfriend, knowing the relationship would probably not last. I realized there was a dichotomy that wasn’t being addressed.
There can be a lot of loss that presents itself to parents as they look at their 17-year-old child. All parents know the speed at which children grow up and we have to remind ourselves as they mature, that although our hearts are remembering their first steps, cuddles, and running into our arms, they are pulling away from us with each year. We have to challenge ourselves to see them as individuals with their own feelings, emotions and points of view. If you find yourself looking at your senior and wanting him to stay home more, spend more ‘quality’ time with the family, and savor all the ‘lasts,’ think again. The more you demand and expect your child to be with you and appreciate that ‘last’ Thanksgiving, the more tension can be created and the less time he will want to spend with you.
My suggestion for parents is to first understand that it’s normal both biologically and emotionally for older children to pull away. If they need you less, then congratulations! You’ve succeeded. The second step would be to explore your own relationship to loss. Having your child leave your home is a huge loss and it is helpful to understand and work through that reality. And lastly, you can look within yourself to explore what might be unfinished from when you left home for the first time. How did you feel? How did your family react? Did you get what you needed from them?
Rather than look at your older child and demand they get nostalgic and cram all these ‘last’ moments together in the year, focus on yourself and what this means for you.
Figure out how you can support your child in what they are going through and utilize your own network of support for yourself. Your child is experiencing her own loss. She will be on her own, perhaps a plane ride away, navigating academics, making decisions, finding new friends, and saying goodbye to friends she may have known since the first grade. And like my client, she might be saying goodbye to her first love. The more you can be there for your child and listen and validate her feelings, the more she will open up to you and want to be around you. That idea of the ‘last’ moments will no longer be the ‘last’ ones, as she will want to keep coming back to you.
Jennifer Jondreau Thompson, PhD, OPC is a Connecticut-based Licensed Professional Counselor and Psychotherapist specializing in addiction, grief & loss, body image & eating disorders, and soulful parenting.