After campus visits, course selections, and roommate assignments, your young adult is ready to leave home for college. You’ve undoubtedly prepared for this moment in many ways, from picking out dorm furniture, to making their favorite home cooked meal before they enter a semester of cafeteria meatloaf and cold pizza. And yet, with all the excitement, you’re still a little nervous about this milestone in your son or daughter’s life. Will they go to class? Will they make good decisions? Will they miss me? Do they need me anymore? What will I do when they are gone? If this scenario seems a little close to home, then you are not the only one. Many parents experience what is often called “Launch Anxiety” as their child launches from adolescence into young adulthood.
That feeling you get in these moments…that uneasiness… is a call, a call to place yourself outside of your comfort zone…and your adolescent, too!…as you establish a new relationship with one another as two adults! The role that you have assumed for 18 years is undergoing a major transformation, and there are, no doubt, growing pains that accompany this important and necessary transition.
Here are 5 strategies to help you navigate this opportunity for personal growth and closeness to your young adult.
1. Self-Regulation: In the book Scream Free Parenting, author Hal Runkel, LMFT says, “The greatest thing you can do for your kids is learn to focus on yourself.” Doesn’t that seem to go against everything we are taught as parents? We are taught to be selfless, sacrificing, and available to our children the moment we are needed. But we often accomplish these things without realizing the toll it takes on our own emotional well-being and find ourselves feeding others from an empty can that desperately needs a refill. This refill only comes by calming your own anxiety and emotional reaction to your son or daughter’s developing self. I like to think of it as coaching yourself. If you could be the teacher and the student all in one, how might you coach yourself to calm your own anxiety?
Perhaps you can start by identifying your thoughts on the matter, free of judgment from what you should or should not be thinking. Said differently, you conduct an honest exploration of what is concerning you. Then, you decipher what emotional responses are accompanying these thoughts. Do you feel worry, sadness, excitement, relief…or all of the above? How do these emotions influence the way you interact with your young adult? What effect does this have on your relationship? How might you alter thoughts that lead to distress and amplify those that bring comfort?
2. Accepting the challenge: Challenges are not always fun, they are definitely not easy, and yet they are a necessary part of growth and maturity. You can expect that this transition will be a challenge for both you and your young adult. Part of calming your own emotional anxiety is accepting that challenges will occur and will provide experiences that teach each of you valuable lessons about yourself and life. It can be difficult to watch your child struggle with life’s challenges, and there is a good chance that you have given them years of advice, encouragement, and direction. Now is their chance to practice these valuable lessons.
3. Re-Introduce yourself: Whether you are a mom or a dad, I’m willing to bet that you are other things as well. It might be difficult for your child to relate to you outside of your parenting role and as a regular human being that doesn’t always have all the answers, that sometimes makes mistakes, and that knows what it feels like to desire some space and freedom. Maybe they know that you are a photographer, but do they know what fuels the passion behind the art. Maybe they know that you started your own business from the ground up, but have you told them about the nights when you just wanted to throw in the towel? Try having conversations like these without making them lessons, but from your new role as a peer who really gets it. “Hi Johnny, this is your mother speaking. My name is Joan and I am human”.
I imagine there are other people that you might need to introduce yourself to as well. Your spouse or significant other? Chances are you have met as “parents” on several occasions over the years. Has it been a while since you talked to their other sides? Has it been a while since YOU’VE talked to YOUR other sides?
4. Respecting autonomy: Have you ever had a friend over for dinner that you just loved and cherished regardless of your opposing political views, life choices, and values?
Have you ever fallen into the trap of trying to parent a friend? I know I sure have, and it’s never pretty! Support vs. Advice…what a difficult thing to balance when you care about someone. Moving toward a relationship with your child as two adults means working toward this balance, seeing them as an individual separate from yourself, honoring their individuality by sharing your wisdom when they actively seek it from you, and respecting their decision to take it or leave it.
5. Negotiation: Negotiations are a natural part of relationships and always exist in one form or another. Maybe you are helping your son or daughter pay for school or providing assistance in some other form and would like to establish a few conditions. How might you approach a business transaction with a colleague? Would you hand them the money and tell them to have fun? Would you have it directly withdrawn for its intended purposes? There really is no right or wrong way of doing it. The trick is that you have a discussion as partners who both hold influence in establishing a system that works for your circumstances. When a negotiation is successful, both parties feel valued rather than compromised.
All transitions take us somewhere…somewhere new and different. These transitions are seldom easy, but they are worth the challenge and we are better for them. The best way to cultivate love is by giving it room to grow.
I’ll leave you with a story of my own adolescence. Are any of these strategies present in this story? Which ones are missing? How might they have been incorporated?
I remember getting my learner’s permit when I was a teen and how excited I was to get behind the wheel of my parent’s car for the first time. If I’m being honest, I was also a little nervous I might wreck the car, although I put on a fairly convincing face of confidence masked by my enthusiasm. My dad felt it would be best to conduct my first lesson on the outskirts of town where I could get a feel for the car away from other traffic. He drove me past the city limit sign, stopped the car on an old dirt road, and handed me the keys. We practiced left hand turns, emergency stops that don’t give the passengers whiplash, and parallel parking between tree rows. Just as I was getting the hang of things, I gave the car a little too much gas as I was turning left and felt the tires spin on the gravel. Panicked, I turned the wheel hard overcorrecting for my mistake and fish tailed the car into the ditch. Scared and a little embarrassed, I turned off the engine and handed my dad the keys. I certainly wasn’t excited about the possibility of landing in the ditch again and judging by the look on his face, neither was he. In a way, I was bidding to my father to relieve my anxiety by taking control of the situation when I handed him the keys. It would have been so easy to call it quits for the evening and say, “Well you did good for your first time”. Somehow, though, he was able to calm his own emotions and resist the parental urge to intervene and “rescue me” even while I was asking him for exactly that. Perhaps he knew that he wouldn’t always be around to help and saw the value in letting me figure this one out. He simply gave me a look and then said, “Start her up and let’s try that again.” He had me recreate the situation, instructing me to give the car too much gas and teaching me how to spin out and regain control of the car without swerving off the road again. I was nervous, but the more that I practiced, the more confident I felt. By managing his own emotions, my father allowed me the opportunity to manage mine. At the end of the day, I was the one who gained control of the car. I was the one who had to calm myself and make the decision to try again. That night I felt prepared, I felt accomplished, like I had really learned something useful. I knew I was not only capable of handling myself under ideal circumstances but that I could even manage myself in a challenging situation.
When I reflect back on what might have happened if my dad had taken those keys from me, I know that I would have missed out on that sense of accomplishment and achievement. I would not have had the opportunity to work through my anxiety and learn something new…to grow. I think we both accomplished something that day…we were more aware of our separateness… we both took responsibility for ourselves…and we were closer because of it.