September 1, 2021

When we reflect back upon our life as a parent, we often see our child as if in a movie montage, changing from a baby into a preschooler, heading off to elementary school, then high school and college.

Sometimes it’s harder to see the changes in our parent-child relationship, even though it obviously adjusts as they grow and need different things from us. If your son or daughter is headed into their last year of high school, or has graduated and is going off to college, the military, or staying at home while going to school and/or working, congratulations! You have reached one of the Last Big Transitions of Parenthood.

The move from adolescence to young adulthood, like most transitions, does not happen overnight for children or their parents. We have all heard of having an “empty nest” when our last child leaves home, but many of us may not be familiar with the experience of “soiling the nest.” That phrase, while a bit distasteful, usually refers to a period during the last few weeks or months before college that can be bittersweet for families. There is excitement, apprehension, and some sadness. Conflict and tension may erupt when the teen, caught between desire for independence and ambivalence about leaving, seems more irritable, distant, and not particularly interested in your parting words of wisdom. Fortunately, this strain is usually short-lived, and best addressed by the parent not taking it too personally, while seeking out the support of friends who have experienced something similar with their own families. A sense of humor is highly recommended for this stage.

Whether your children are moving away or staying home, things will change as they segue way into young adulthood. If parents can move into more of a “coaching” role by the end of their child’s senior year in high school, rather than continuing to be more of a “director,” they will help prepare the teen for the increasing self-sufficiency he or she will need. Julie Lythcott-Haims’s wonderful book, How to Raise an Adult, suggests a list of skills necessary for 18 year olds to navigate the future, including: how to handle their own interpersonal problems, such as talking with unfamiliar adults (since they will soon be having conversations with professors, bosses, and health care providers without us there); managing their own assignments or deadlines without parental nagging; learning some simple money management skills (not just using a parent’s credit card); and experience with how struggle sometimes can build resilience. Setbacks and even failures are important for learning what works and what does not. Being a supportive parent does not mean leaving a child floundering without any help, but it does mean resisting the urge to take over and thereby deprive an adolescent of the sense of competence necessary for living in a more independent environment. 

In the past decade, the rise of the smartphone has changed the level of communication between young adults and their parents. In previous generations, a weekly phone call may have been typical, but now frequent texts and calls may be more the norm. Psychologist Lisa Damour wrote a popular essay about how parents of young adults often feel stuck taking out their child’s “emotional trash,” a reference to that experience of frequently receiving an emotionally intense text or call that may leave parents feeling stressed about their child’s struggle of the moment, long after their child has moved on. When our children hand over their “trash” to us, they aren’t necessarily expecting us to solve their problems, but rather want a safe place to vent and find a sympathetic ear. Learning to listen for the difference between wanting advice versus emotional support can start with asking something like: “That sounds hard, honey, I’m sorry. What are you thinking about doing?,” rather than jumping in with a list of ways to solve the problem.

Of course, sometimes a young adult does need more concrete, direct help. In recent years, teens and college students have reported an increase in symptoms of anxiety and depression, and those numbers only increased during the pandemic. You know your child better than anyone, and if you feel something is drastically different in their behavior, help them find the resources and support available to them. Prevention is key, so when getting ready for the big move, discuss healthy coping skills that have served him or her well in the past. Providing a loving balance of independence and connection to our children will help them grow into the adults they seek to become. 

By Lisa Phillips, MSW, LMSW

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