Kids & Families First: Bittersweet Transitions
Wednesday, April 12, 2017 12:31 PM
Q: I have a son who’s graduating from high school this year and a daughter, 19, who will be returning from her first year in college next month. It’s such an anxious time for me. I don’t know where to draw the line with either of them. My son is quite mouthy with me, telling me to “back off” a lot because he thinks I’m not giving him enough freedom. I probably try to supervise him too much, but I can’t help it. When my daughter comes home, he wants to do everything she can, and she takes his side, giving me a hard time that I’m too controlling. I feel really ganged up on! I’m not looking forward to having them both around, and yet I will miss them so much when they’re both away at college. Do you have any suggestions of how I can handle this better?
Judith Hatch Orme, MSW, LCSW, has an office at 69 Elm Street in Camden. A parenting specialist, counselor, consultant, and family mediator, she provides workshops, teacher trainings, parenting consulting, counseling for children, parents, couples and families, and divorce mediation. To schedule appointments, receive her electronic newsletter, or customize a workshop/staff training, contact her at 603-801-6382 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Note: New spring parenting workshops starting; call or e-mail for details.
A: It sounds very stressful for you. I can appreciate you want to do the best possible job with each of your adolescents and feel you haven’t found quite the “right formula” yet. As much as you’re excited to see your daughter, anticipating resuming your dual parenting role again, there’s also some trepidation. There are potential power struggles, frustrations, disappointments. Be aware of your expectations. Struggles that may arise with negotiating differences, with your daughter returning home and a son ready to fly the “nest,” need to be addressed early on. Your oldest child has experienced liberation, testing new experiences, assuming a more independent role. She’s been moving outside the safe, familiar parameters in new directions, with increasing autonomy.
Let’s consider what could happen when your daughter returns home. The many opportunities have opened new doors, expanding her horizons. She likely believes she needs no parental advice/guidance and can make all her own decisions. She’s been spreading her wings with increased confidence. She’ll return home with different expectations and needs. After independently managing her life, she won’t expect to be monitored by her parents. Thus her behavior reinforces her feelings of autonomy. As much as you want to be part of her life during the summer, you’ll need to renegotiate your relationship to better define your role.
At the same time, your son is anticipating his transition from high school to college, bringing considerable anxiety and excitement. He faces graduation, saying goodbye to close friends, before taking his leave. His most important developmental task is separating from his parents. If you’ve been keeping a tight hold on him, with ambivalence about letting go, his pulling away might be more hostile. It’s easier for some kids, leaving home for the first time, to be angry before saying goodbye. Be proactive to avoid possible struggles with them both by addressing the family dynamic changes before, or soon after, your daughter returns home.
A few examples for your son: “We’ve been having our struggles, and I’d like us to make our relationship work better. I’m so proud of all you’ve accomplished and excited for you with graduation and going away to college. I know this is a time of major transition, bringing anxiety and new experiences for both of us. I need to let go more, which is scary for me. I understand you need to push away from us to establish more independence. Let’s discuss how we can make sure we balance everyone’s needs and treat each other with respect.” That opens a more honest conversation, rather than avoiding or arguing with each other.
With your daughter, addressing your changing relationship: “We love having you home. While you’ve been away, we know you’ve been taking responsibility for yourself, making good decisions. We’re proud of your accomplishments and the independent woman you’ve become. At the same time, we’re struggling to let go and accept our changing role as parents. We’d like your help in how we can make this work better, and ask for your patience when either of us tries to manage you. We need to negotiate how our relationship will be different.”
Both your children will appreciate their parents’ candor, providing an opportunity to consider how each wants their relationship to work. When you begin to “consult,” rather than “manage,” your adolescents, they will be more comfortable talking about the ways they DO need their parents. This connective communication helps shift the focus: they can become more clear about their own behavior, assuming more accountability for how each resents parental “interference.” Sharing your struggles to let go of each of them, while reinforcing your respect and pride in them, helps to reduce tension. It allows them to realize that your need to hold on is not about them, rather more about your difficulty in giving up a familiar parenting role. It’s a chance to open more discussions, as you address how to redefine your relationship.
Our children ultimately separate from us, assuming more independence, living with their respective choices. It may be challenging and scary to let go. When they’re away at school, we know little of their activities. That shifts significantly when they come home. Somehow, that “out of sight, out of mind” reduces anxiety and vigilance, which resurfaces when they occupy the same home. Although it seems as though our children no longer need us when they leave the nest, they simply need us in different ways. We’ve a much better chance of being part of their lives when we have open dialogue and authentic connection, acknowledging their changing needs as well as our own, while offering our love, honesty and acceptance. You have some fertile opportunity now for connection with both children at home this summer, shaping meaningful relationships free of power struggles and conflict. Celebrate their growth, their unique achievements. In doing our job well, we will have established strong connection and trust, letting our children separate/individuate to establish healthy, independent lives. It is indeed bittersweet!