Once the seniors have graduated, they will have the rest of the summer to bond with their families before leaving for college. Children and parents will have many long, meaningful discussions over extended dinners; graduates and siblings will share emotional moments where they express how much they will miss one another; and the summer will be conflict-free and enjoyable for all. Right?
Wrong! While there may be some touching moments between now and when the students head off to college, there may also be tension and stress as children and parents negotiate this time. I was reminded of this when I read an article sent to me by a Bosque parent, “Off To College: The Serious Talk You Should Have With Your Child” by Lisa Heffernan. As Heffernan relates, against our heartfelt wishes, we may find that these months can include an emotional pushing and pulling as parents and children renegotiate their relationship. “My son wanted to spend much of his time with his friends. He wanted to be treated like an adult, though many times failed to act like one. With an ever-lengthening but still untouched to-do list (the forms, appointments, shopping), I reverted to type and nagged. He pushed back and pushed away in a phenomenon known commonly as ‘spoiling the nest.’ The pain for both of us of his imminent departure brought to the surface some very unattractive behavior. He was surely nervous about leaving and, despite the fact that I had 18 years of warning about this date, my sadness was often expressed as frustration with him.”
Both parents and children realize internally that one phase of their lives has ended and another one is beginning, but neither side is sure what this new relationship will look like. There will be new ways of connecting with one another, and there will be different norms to which we must become accustomed, but we don’t know yet what they will be. As with any situation in life, limbo is not a fun place; unfortunately, we may need to live in it for this summer. Since our children were little, they have been finding ways to individuate and become independent. The first time they rode their bike around the corner; the first time they slept over at a friend’s house or went away to camp; the first time they drove off in the family car—all these experiences brought us parents moments of pride mixed with a tinge of sadness because they were literally out of our sight.
I remember last summer when my wife and I discussed our son’s going off to college. We understood that he would have friends we would not know, professors who he respected but we would not meet, and he would go places that we would never see. We could hold the conflicting emotions of excitement for him and sadness for us simultaneously, but it was not easy. This maelstrom of emotions can be tricky for parents and children.
As Heffernan recommends, we need to have honest conversations with our children before they leave. We need to share in their excitement, but we also need to let them know that not everything will be perfect, and there may be problems along the way. These talks with our children allow us to share in their enthusiasm but also recognize that there’s an element of ambiguity for parents and children as they enter this new phase of life. Heffernan suggests:
“This summer’s talks need to touch upon mental health and sexual misconduct. Colleges spend a great deal of time talking about sexual assault with incoming students, but that does not get parents off the hook for discussing this topic. Stress and anxiety are rising on college campuses. Our kids need to understand how and when to reach out for help for themselves, and how to be a friend in times of crisis. This is the time to tell our kids the importance of taking care of others, of being there when they are needed, and of being the kind of friend they hope to have. We need to tell our kids how we failed and recovered, how our own judgment let us down sometimes, and how both good and bad luck play a role in our lives. This is a moment for real honesty. We need to shed part of our superhero image if we are to have an adult relationship with our kids, and that is an armor that is very painful to remove. They need to know that we remember what it means to be 18 and will be there for them if they need us.”The summer before our children go off to college can be both exciting and infuriating. We will get through it, but having open and honest conversations may enable us to travel this road together and set up our children and ourselves for what lies ahead. I recently spoke with a parent who said with a mixture of pride and wistfulness, “We spend our whole parenting lives preparing our children to be independent, and then they go and do it!”