Over the years, I have received panicked calls and inquiries from friends who are parents of high school seniors. They are preparing to send their child, often their first, off to college, and maybe they call because I have been talking about the impending empty nest for a long time (my first child’s departure for college was over eight years ago).
Perhaps they know I will be sympathetic and happy to talk about incredibly personal thoughts and emotions that are undoubtedly complex and multi-layered.
Run up to college begins senior year
Whether a parent is confused or distressed about the changes in their relationships with their teen, the convoluted college process, or the idea of a child moving out, I have decided that “the run-up” to college is a hard but crucial part of parenting. I define ‘the run-up” as senior year (and some) of high school when your child’s moving away to college or some other pre-career track begins to loom.
It is an emotional time for the parents of high school seniors — they are saying goodbye to their routine of the past decades, connections to others via that child, and a concrete/clear sense of purpose as a parent. At the same time, most parents understand that a shift in their relationship with their child is required and critical.
So it is ironic that amid all this stress, emotion (happy and sad), and nostalgia, we must do some of our best and most important parenting.
Looking back at my three run-ups, much like my friends, I experienced many emotions. I was often highly distracted from my regular life and sometimes weepy. At the same time, akin to the hyper-nesting you do before that baby arrives, I felt an uneasy sense of urgency. Somehow, this helped me focus on the actual responsibility of “emptying.”
This translated into a more proactive approach to providing my child with gentle support or a kick in the pants, the opportunity to actively take more control of their own lives.
No matter how much independence you have handed over or forced upon your child at varying stages, the run-up year to high school graduation seems to be a turning point. It’s a time to shift from being in charge to deliberately pushing a child toward leading the way.
So here are nine themes from my three run-ups:
1. Pulling myself together
Yes, I shed some tears on my own, with the constant parade of lasts, but I focused on the exciting new life my child would embark upon. I reminded myself that my children needed a role model while experiencing mixed emotions. I allowed them to talk about their concerns and wishes and sometimes joked about how miserable I would be without them to add some levity to the conversation. I kept it “future-focused,” so they viewed the next phase as exciting and fulfilling.
2. The responsibility dance
During senior year, there is a muddling of push and pull between child and parent over who will do what. When I announced that something was now their responsibility, I had to shrug and hope for the best. Sometimes, I had to force-feed the task and require that they complete it.
3. Social life — “Make good choices”
Whenever my teens and their friends headed out the door on weekends, I repeated these words in a sing-song voice. I had a few other regular reminder phrases… “You’ve all worked so hard, so don’t blow it,” “You are responsible for being a good friend,” and, their all-time favorite, “Tonight is NOT the night to bust out…everyone is watching!”
Generally, my husband and I stayed on top of knowing where, when, and who my children were with and remained very strict about expectations, safety, curfew, etc. And yet….that last year, it’s a MUST to lighten up IF your child has earned your trust (no kid is perfect.) Of course, I said many late-night prayers while I reminded myself, how will they make good decisions in college if they never really had a chance to make ANY (good and bad) beforehand?
4. Managing stress and learning coping strategies
This is your big opportunity to help them learn how they react to stress and to help them learn techniques to keep things in check. I was fortunate that all three of my children wanted to do well but were motivated for different reasons. All high school seniors, even the most low-key child, feel stressed at some point.
Two of my children often needed to hear the “there is no deal breaker in life; it’s the long haul that counts” speech. One walked out midway through an SAT after a mix-up. When she called in a crying jag, I said, “Pull over to the side of the road; it’s a stupid test, but driving while hysterical crying is a DEAL breaker.”
On the other hand, my youngest reacted vehemently to the “keep it in perspective” strategy, telling me, “When you give me the ‘it’s only one test’ speech, I hear you saying that you don’t believe I can do better. I need you to say, ‘Go dig in and get back out there.’ Still, I did share with all my children my long view that getting into the perfect college is no secret formula for a happy and meaningful life.
5. Good and bad advice
My wisest friend used to jokingly say: “Everything will be fine if you don’t make eye contact with other parents of high school seniors.”
You and your child need to find the approach to life after high school graduation that works for you. There is excellent advice out there and also well-meaning, lousy advice. I am eternally grateful for the professional advice from wonderful guidance counselors, teachers, and friends. Still, I learned that my values and my child’s makeup required a different approach to theirs.
6. Ask questions, use reflective listening, and be cheerfully encouraging
I facilitated the research and exploration to expand my kids’ perspectives, helped with college visits, and made cups of hot chocolate while they were writing college applications. However, I made sure my children were leading the conversation. I asked many “what do you think?” questions, suggested that they sleep on decisions overnight, and urged them to be realistic and daring with their dreams.
They had the final say on most choices of what colleges to apply to and, indeed, what they ultimately chose. But I asked probing questions, reminded them of some of their parents’ basic expectations about character and finances, murmured encouragement, and tried to keep my mouth shut even when I disagreed.
7. Handling mishaps, disappointments
There is a lifetime of lessons during senior year. How wonderful if your child is rewarded for some of their efforts but is also likely to experience some heartache over a disappointing outcome.
I embarked with my last child, thinking I had this college thing down. However, I knew she was looking at a specialized professional track I knew nothing about. Despite my experience of sending off two other very different students already, I am now considering selling this last story as a sitcom because of how many little things went wrong.
We wound up in the ER twice in different states, and for one scheduled interview, the University had the first shutdown in its history. In a heightened way, this provided ample opportunity to model flexibility, maintain good humor, be resourceful, and learn when to give up to regroup.
But I included her in the problem-solving and decisions about what to do, and we learned together. We have laughed so hard about this now (tears before), but I hope it will be a metaphoric reference point for her to forge ahead in other challenging times.
8. Teaching your child to applaud or accept success with grace
Most kids aren’t usually recognized for their best selves in high school. I am grateful that we talked honestly about personal challenges and disappointments at home. As a family, we acknowledged their siblings’ and classmates’ talents and celebrated the success of their peers. My kids learned to be good cheerleaders, and when they were fortunate enough to be acknowledged for an accomplishment, they were modest and grateful for the support they received along the way.
9. Unexpected understanding
You think you know your child better than anyone, and you probably do, and you think that the adolescent child before you will evolve into a more grown-up version. However, with each of my children, I learned about their character, aspirations, determination, personal demons, and a few of their souls in that last year. This is by far and away the most significant gift you will be given during the run-up.
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