Graduation: Now What? (Parent Edition)
Congratulations, parents, you did it! Your child gets the gifts and glory (as they should), but here is a well-deserved pat on the back for you as your child graduates from high school.
As you look back on your child's academic career so far, you may get a little teary-eyed thinking about how quickly it all went by. You may remember your child's preschool or kindergarten graduation when they wore a construction paper hat and took their thumb out of their mouth just long enough to shake the hand of their teacher. You may have felt compelled to look through your child's old school pictures or projects that you have kept over the years and to think about the sweet, little hands you held and tears that you dried. You may be looking forward with a mixture of excitement and anxiety at the next steps your child will take. Will he be ok? Will she call home? Will I be ok?
The short answer to those questions for most families is: YES! Everyone will be ok, and they will call home. Whether your child is entering the workforce or going to college, leaving familiar surroundings to move toward adulthood is a difficult transition for everyone. You, as a parent, want your child to succeed, and you want to help them in any way you can. You want to give them advice, an understanding ear, and some snacks to take back to the dorm. You want them to call you when they need you, but you also want them to show independence. You want them to learn from your mistakes, but you understand that they need to make their own mistakes as well.
Here are a few things to think about as you and your family transition from high school to post-high school lives.
If your child is leaving home to attend college or to move into their own place, it is only natural to want to help them as much as you can. You may take them shopping for dorm furniture ("Honey, you need a desk lamp! You don't have a desk?! I think they're over here."). You may take them to student orientation ("Did you listen when she said you can only get one breakfast on your meal plan? Make sure you have some snacks in your room if you get hungry before lunch."). You may help them move into their new apartment ("I know you want the TV there, but there will be a glare from the window, I'm telling you..."). You may help them buy their books, go meet their professors, take them grocery shopping, pay their security deposit, or cook them their first meal in their new place. You may want to do a happy dance and turn their bedroom into a craft room or man cave before the dust settles in the driveway.
Offer them help where you can, but be sure to give them space as well. They are moving out in order to become more independent, so showing respect for that independence is an important part of the transition. That may mean different things to different families, and you and your family should discuss what that looks like for you. Do you expect to see your child every Sunday for lunch, or are you content to see them at Christmas? Do you expect them to take care of their own laundry, or do you expect them to bring it home? Clearly discussing expectations and desires will cut down on disappointment or feelings of being taken advantage of.
Regardless of how excited and/or sad you are about their departure, things will be different around the house. Even if your child plans to live at home for a while as they get on their feet, things will be different around the house. Your child will expect (and need) more freedom as they take on new responsibilities. You will need to set boundaries and to show respect for your child's boundaries. Not every child will call with daily updates as they start their new schedule and responsibilities. Your child may actually call you more often than you want them to with questions or fears or just because they are a little homesick. Work with your child on finding a balance that works for you both.
Your child is a young adult now. They are leaving the nest (even if they plan to return after the semester is over). That is a transition that may take its toll on existing family dynamics. You and your spouse or other family members in the household may find this transition easier if you have maintained relationships and your own interests throughout the years. If you have stayed engaged with one another outside of the role of parent or grandparent, you may have smoother sailing into this new stage of life. Fostering those relationships as well as focusing on your work and/or hobbies will help ease the transition to parenting an adult.
Tips for a Smoother Transition:
- Be a facilitator, not an enabler: If your child will be on her/his own for the first time, give some advice on how
to manage finances, manage time, and manage relationships but don't do it for them.
Offer them tools. Offer the occasional bail out if you are able, but don't do all their work for them.
- If they run out of cash but have a meal plan to get them through, make them use the meal plan.
- If they forgot to write a paper over Thanksgiving break, don't write it for them, give them some ideas on ways to get it done in time.
- If they can't make themselves get up for work, don't get in the habit of calling to wake them up, help them come up with ways to get up on their own.
- Look for the positives: Are you having a hard time letting them spread their wings? If you are, sometimes it is easy to focus on the scary parts of being on your own. If you pass your anxiety on to your child, they may start to think they can't make it. Give them a boost. Send them a text telling them you're proud of how well they are doing. Giving them a little motivation may just make you feel better too.
- Let your child fail: This is good advice for any parent, regardless of their child's age, and it is still
true for parents of new graduates. In order for your child to learn to "adult," they
will need to mess up occasionally. They will need to mess up and figure out how to
fix it themselves. This includes grades, work, and social situations. Gone are the
days of calling the mean girl's mom to hash things out; she'll need to deal with the
mean girl on her own. Be there for her when she calls to vent, but don't handle it
- Bonus college-bound tip: Parents, please do not contact your child's college professors. There are federal regulations forbidding instructors from communicating with anyone but their student. If you attempt to contact a professor, they are likely to ignore you or reply with a polite reference to FERPA (Family Education Rights and Privacy Act). The same rules that protected your child's educational information from others when they were under 18, has now transferred to their oversight. (Note: Exceptions to this may exist if your child has special needs or is otherwise impacted in a way that interferes with their ability to function independently.)
As you all attempt to transition from familiar to new, be sure to communicate with your child. To maintain your bond and allow it to grow and evolve, it is important to allow your child to grow and evolve. They will thank you for it.
Congratulations, parents! You did it!!
For further reading:
Konstam, V. (2013). Parenting Your Emerging Adult: Launching Kids from 18 to 29. New Horizon: Far Hills, NJ.
Rubenstein, C. (2007). Beyond the Mommy Years: How to Live Happily Ever After...After the Kids Leave Home. Springboard: NY.
Stabiner, K. (2007). The Empty Nest: 31 Parents Tell the Truth about Relationships, Love, and Freedom After the Kids Fly the Coop. Springboard: NY.