A Parent’s Guide to Letting Go

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The last strains of “Pomp and Circumstance” have faded away, the graduation party is over and the guests have departed. It seems like only yesterday that proud high school graduate was a helpless newborn. Now that baby is about to step away from the family and build an independent life. “I had such mixed emotions when my first child, graduated from high school,” said Donna Long of Pennington, N.J. “I was relieved that he had graduated, because there were times when it didn’t look like he would make it, but I couldn’t imagine how he would manage without the structure of school and family. Frankly, there were moments when I felt like someone had kicked me in the gut.”

Graduation from high school marks a formal line between dependent child and independent adult. At 18, these boys and girls become legal adults, able to enter into contracts, get married without permission or enlist in the military. Although society treats 18-year-olds as adults, many parents have difficulty in easing out of their parental role and establishing a new relationship with their adult children.

“Some parents experience sadness, which is a very typical and even appropriate reaction, as it [graduation from high school] marks the end of an era. Others are excited about what the future holds. Sometimes it’s a mixture of emotions,” says Julie Harren, Ph.D. Harren is a licensed marriage and family therapist with a private practice in Boca Raton and West Palm Beach and current president of the Palm Beach Association for Marriage and Family Therapy.

Letting go is one of the trickiest jobs a parent must do. In early childhood, parents play an authoritative role. Their job is to instruct, teach, guide, protect and provide discipline. “In the high school years parents should begin to very gradually transition into a less authoritative role, with senior year marking the most significant change,” says Harren. One way to begin this transition is by talking less and listening more. “Parents are often so focused on teaching and sharing their own perspective that they fail to elicit their teenager’s beliefs, ideas and thoughts. When kids are younger they need a lot more teaching and instructing, but by high school, they are not as apt to listen to parental monologues,” says Harren.

Sometimes parents panic when they realize that the time they have to prepare their child is running out, especially if they feel that their child is not well equipped for life outside the family. Often they try to cram all the input and information that their child should have been receiving gradually throughout high school into a few months. “Panicked parents sometimes resort to pointing out all of the mistakes and faults in their child. This approach is certainly counterproductive,” says Harren. “An alternative approach is to point out what kids do right and build on their strengths.”

With high school graduation, the financial and social dynamics within the family change. One of the biggest sources of friction between parents and new graduates is money — who is going to pay for what, how much and with what conditions or restrictions. About 60 percent of high school graduates transition directly to college. The majority of these students remain financially dependent on their parents. Other high school graduates live at home while working at their first job or taking college classes part time. They expect more independence and privileges than they had as high school students.

Families with new graduates need to have open discussions about everyone’s financial and social expectations. Examples of issues to be negotiated include:

• Which college expenses will parents pay and which are the student’s responsibility?
• Do parents expect college students to get part-time jobs while in school, and are these expectations realistic?
• Are graduates living at home and working expected to pay room and board?
• Who pays for the graduate’s personal needs, such as a cell phone or clothing?
• Who gets to use the family car and who pays for the car insurance?
• How can families and graduates respect each other’s needs and still allow the graduate to have an independent social life and an acceptable level of privacy?
• How will a graduate still living at home contribute to household chores?
• How much responsibility will graduates living at home have for the care of their younger siblings?

Key to working out these issues is the ability of parents to listen and allow kids to express their perspectives, even if they differ radically from the parent’s views. “As they [teenagers] express themselves, they actually have an opportunity to think through their own ideas, sometimes realizing the erroneous nature of their ideas and sometimes simply gaining clarity,” explains Harren.
With each life transition, family relationships encounter strain. Some amount of unsettledness and conflict is normal when children graduate and begin independent lives.

However, when a parent’s sadness at their child leaving home turns into despair or hopelessness, or when prolonged or intense conflict occurs within the family, outside help may be the best way to move the transition process forward. Under these conditions, family therapy can be very helpful in adjusting to life’s changes.

Tish Davidson is a freelance writer and mother.