Many of the families I am working with right now are preparing for one of the most significant milestones in the life of the adolescent—going away to college.
There are several stages of logistical, emotional and psychological preparation inherent in this transitional time, which begins with the college application process. What is notable from the perspective of many of the parents I work with today is how much more intense and rigorous it is for our teens than it was for ourselves ‘back in the day.’ Whether it’s high school juniors working their tails off for good grades, padding their transcripts with extra-curriculars, and working with tutors to obtain the SAT/ACT scores they need to apply to their colleges of choice, or seniors polishing their personal essays, completing their applications, and suffering the waiting game from submission to acceptance, the trials and tribulations of this process affects not only the adolescent, but the family as a whole.
What is important for parents to remain mindful of during this time is that the college process itself is the developmental equivalent of crossing the threshold from from adolescence to young adulthood. As such, the ways in which you support (“I think those are terrific choices of colleges! You go for it!”), encourage (“If you work a little harder, I bet you can get into that ‘reach’ school after all!”), and limit-set (“There is no way I am sending you to the ‘#1 Party School in America!’”) will not only guide your teen toward a positive college experience, but toward independence, self-reliance, and the ability to take responsibility for his actions — all critical skills for the young adult venturing out on his own.
So what does this mean for the emotional life of the parent-teen relationship? Expect the process to parallel earlier stages of adolescence—rebellion (“Just because you and dad want me to go to that college does NOT mean I have to want to go there!”), resistance (“What’s the big deal?! The deadline is not until tomorrow…!”), and fear (“Forget it. I’ll just stay home and work at McDonald’s!”). There will also be that characteristic tug and pull between their desire to be a child (“I don’t waaaaaant to learn how to do my own laundry.”), and a grownup (“Why shouldn’t I have my own credit card for college. I’m practically an adult!”). Sound familiar? If it does, just remember: Don’t give up on being a strong, loving, and consistent parent.
The college-bound teen will push your buttons, push the limits of authority and control, and then push herself right back into your lap when you least expect it. Be patient. Be clear and direct. Be ready for anything. And as ever, don’t take it personally when they express love and affection to their peers and save their temperamental and moody selves for you. This dynamic serves a purpose. First, it is a necessary training ground for them as they learn how and when to express uncomfortable feelings. It is in the ‘safety’ of their own homes where they can release said emotions without fear of rejection (like they might experience with their peers), and it is with the help of parental patience, support and guidance that they will learn to regulate and express their feelings appropriately. It is also developmentally appropriate as they continue their trajectory away from their families and toward their social and romantic relationships, which will be necessary for them to live satisfying adult lives.
Do let them know when they have crossed a line and hurt the feelings of others, but don’t belabor the point and make them feel responsible for your feelings. You can (and should!) talk to your therapist, your partner or your friends about that. Do trust that you are planting the seeds not only of independence, but also of respect for you and your parenting. Don’t expect immediate gratitude, but do look for the signs that they have internalized what you have taught them. Look for self-reliance, their ability to use dryer sheets, and the fact that they will probably call, text, email or Skype with you more in the first few months they are away than in their entire adolescent lives. Let that be your reward.
Good luck to you parents, to the graduating class of 2012, and to our future graduates who– as we speak– are making macaroni necklaces and pouring glitter in their hair.
Fara is a psychotherapist with a private practice in Park Slope where she specializes in working with children, adolescents, parents and families, coping with trauma, addictions, anxiety and depression. Utilizing both traditional psychotherapy and creative arts therapy in her work, she provides individual, couples and family counseling and has developed and implemented psychotherapy, psycho-education and creative arts therapy groups for children, adolescents and adults. She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 917-359-3335.