Letting out the Tether: Parents of Seniors Growing Too

by Dr. Ann L. Engelland

(May 25, 2005)

Martha is a senior at Mamaroneck High School, a great student who never caused her parents undue anxiety and is going off to a prestigious college in the fall. Her parents now find themselves wanting to restrict her activities: they’re upset if she is even ten minutes late for curfew; worry about who is going where and doing what with whom; and generally wonder if they’ve said and done everything they need to before she leaves the nest.

Sound familiar? This syndrome of “last minute” panic can strike parents anytime from spring of junior year to the end of senior year. It’s a natural way for parents to express anxiety about the big changes ahead. Unfortunately, it often wreaks havoc on the relationship with their child who doesn’t get it. The kids sometimes interpret this “last minute” caring as intrusive and a sign of parental lack of trust. Without realizing it, this can convert to a fear on the kids’ part that they aren’t really ready to leave for college. Alternatively they experience the attention as excessive and feel the need to flee in order to assert independence. And so the cycle becomes vicious.

What to do? Start talking. Try to elevate the discussion to a higher plane, one not informed by panic, accusation, or overprotectiveness. Let your kids know what worries you. Admit to them what it felt like the first day you left them off at Kindergarten. Tell them what concerns you about college life. This may be:

  • underage drinking and dangerous drinking patterns (If relevant, remind them of any family history of alcoholism and how it often takes root in college unless steps are taken to avoid the pitfalls.)

  • date rape, “hooking up”, and “friends with benefits”

  • nutrition and the risk for unhealthy eating, drinking and weight gain or loss

  • unhealthy sleeping habits (say it anyway)

  • decision making for academic and personal issues (if these are not well established already)

Let your child know that he or she is not really expected to know all the answers and that it is important to ask for help from a variety of sources (including parents) in order to be best served. Tell them where you trust them and where you have special worries. Be sure they know you DO trust most of their abilities.

Some families find it useful to reexamine parenting styles, and their kids often benefit from taking stock of how they generally react to that style. In her helpful book, Bringing Home the Laundry—Effective Parenting for College and Beyond (Taylor Trade Publishing, 2000), Janis Brody helps families with this new stage of life. She advises: “Don’t let go; loosen your grip.”

But how does a parent do that? Brody uses the amusing metaphor of the laundry to illustrate different styles and encourage families to find their own approaches. It helps anticipate the tasks that lie ahead, and is full of tips for both parents and kids on how to navigate the tricky times. In my own family I have seen “laundry styles” that mirror my kids’ personalities. They range from the kid who insists on using special eco-friendly detergent and doing his own wash, to the kid who fills the station wagon with dirty clothes once a semester. It’s all fine. It’s all a reflection of who they are.

There are a few practical aspects to sending your child off that will help ease the transition:

There is nothing wrong with letting your child know what your expectations are in terms of communication. In my experience, email is a wonderful way to stay in touch with the nuts and bolts but a phone conversation or personal visit is necessary for in depth communication.

Also, let your college student know which holidays you expect her to come home to celebrate with the family and when you might pay a visit to campus. If there are family events or vacation plans, be sure everyone is informed.

For kids with ongoing medical or psychological issues, they should know the names and doses of their medications and how to use and refill them. If a teen is in psychological counseling it is a good idea to have a discussion with the therapist about access to phone appointments and methods of payment for these. Many therapists will gladly maintain a relationship with their college-age patients in this way.

Confidentiality with respect to a college student’s grades and health care, including mental health, is a thorny issue that many parents have a difficult time adjusting to. After all, most parents are paying a significant chunk of the tuition and many feel they have some “right” to the information. As far as grades go, if your kid’s college has such a policy, consider allowing the school to share your child’s grades with you at least for the first year. During this period of adjustment and changing communication patterns, a set of grades brings some comfort to parents who may otherwise be unduly worried.

As far as confidentiality with respect to medical care goes, it can be frustrating, frightening and overwhelming to have a child in emergency care at the student health services or a faraway emergency room and not have access to information about his condition. If they are able, students may need to give written consent for any provider to speak to the parent of a child over 18. It is helpful to discuss these issues with kids before they leave so that they understand their own rights and their ability to give consent for parental involvement.

With so many issues to consider, it is not surprising that seniors and their parents feel anxious about the passage ahead. Parents will lose some control, but they will still have plenty of opportunity for influence if they maintain communication. DO talk; even if they seem to be just tolerating your comments, they really want and look for your opinion on these matters.

Ultimately and ideally, the goals of this phase of life for parents could be summed up as:

  • A shift in communication to a more adult on-going dialogue

  • A new appreciation for your child as a thinking person, making decisions as well as mistakes and growing from them

  • Developing a bond with your child that can withstand separations

  • Overcoming the complex emotions that parents feel when a child moves on: sadness, envy, anxiety, excitement, loss

  • Sharing the life of a new adult and getting to know how your child actually thinks and feels about a number of interesting topics

  • Learning how to adjust your own life to the changes brought on by kids growing up.

With a bit of psychological preparation, this stressful time can be enormously joyful and satisfying.

Dr. Engelland has a practice in Mamaroneck devoted to Adolescent Primary Care. She can be reached at 698-5544.

Have a teen health question? Use the form below to send it to Dr. Engelland. Please note: Dr Engelland cannot respond privately to individual queries online. Comments are welcome and anonymous questions may be answered in future columns. Serious medical problems should be referred to your own physician.

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