Congratulations parents of high school seniors! You are almost there – you are approaching the finish line of successfully launching your child into the real world. Wow, that actually sounds scary, doesn’t it? With your child’s senior year, and possibly an impending empty nest upon you, the excitement, jitters, anxiety, fear, and sadness have taken over most parents’ psyche! However, while a parent might hope for special moments together during this monumental year, their teenager is usually not focused on quality time with mom and dad – at all!
Having worked with families in many stages of life, I often encounter the struggle families have between parental expectations and the expectations/needs of the child. How a parent navigates these transitions is important in making sure relationships remain positive. Navigating the transition from teenager to young adult is no small feat! As graduation approaches, a parent’s anxiety goes up – are the kids ready for the next stage of life? Will they miss me? Are they making good choices? This anxiety is often experienced by the teenager as pressure to explain themselves, spend time with their parents, or as arguments over what they are doing and with whom they are spending time. This parental pressure is in direct contradiction to the life stage change the teen is experiencing – every ounce of their being (and this is biologically based) tells them to spend time with friends and to assert their independence from their parents.
Parents have to learn a difficult lesson – you can’t hold onto them too tight or it will backfire! Yes, they still need your love and guidance. However, the more you push, the more they will pull away. They will interpret your anxiety and fear for them as nagging and nosiness leading him/her to want to spend less time at home. I often advise parents to step back, offer guidance, but then trust your teen (within reason) to navigate the world on their own. The teen will fail at times, but you can still offer them a comfortable place to fall so they can try again. And they will come back again and again if they feel supported and not chased!
And, by the way, as you are less involved with your child, take this time to focus on your spouse! Studies show that marital satisfaction drops significantly after having children but slowly improves as your child gets closer to launching/launches on their own! Enjoy this time to reconnect with your spouse. Go on dates again. Remember what you enjoyed doing together prior to having kids, rekindle the romance and, most importantly, get to know each other again! Together you can be proud of the huge accomplishment of launching a child into the world – their separation from you is actually a sign you have succeeded!
Kara Smith is a Marriage and Family Therapist with over 15 years of experience helping adolescents and their families work through a multitude of challenges. She is owner of Urbana Marriage and Family Therapy Center in Frederick, MD.