It’s October, but I’m still in a funk.
As usual, the first day of school was surreal. Back-to-school night was a couple of weeks ago and extra-curricular activities are set to full throttle. You’d think by now I’d be settled into the new routine. Not. The truth is I still feel downright weird.
Although transitioning from summer to fall has always been challenging, this year was especially tough. The oldest of my four children started her freshman year in college last month, and she couldn’t be happier. Two weeks later my third-born started high school and — surprisingly — that’s what put me over the edge.
For some perspective on why transitions can be so difficult for parents and students — I reached out to author, education expert, and mother of three grown sons, Susan Kuczmarski, Ed.D.
Kuczmarski is the author of several books on parenting and leadership. Her newest book “Becoming a Happy Family: Pathways to the Family Soul” will be released in December. Here’s what we can learn from these notoriously difficult transitions.
It’s normal to feel sad or regret the passage of time when your children get older and start to leave the nest, but parents shouldn’t see the process as a loss.
“Try to focus on the happy memories you’ve shared with your child, and enjoy your emerging adult,” Kuczmarski says.
Kuczmarski explains that when a child leaves home, the family dynamic changes and it takes some time for those left behind to adjust.
“Don’t fret. Clarity will come eventually and the settling in will happen on its own.” Reassuringly, Kuczmarski adds that the new normal can have some unexpected benefits. “Sometimes siblings [who] didn’t get along previously may start to enjoy each other. And with less children to care for — and worry about — on a daily basis, mom and dad may even get some relief. Having more gas in your tank and less laundry to do are nice perks, too.”
Older teenagers (ages 16 to 18) value the three F's: friends, freedom, and focus on self, Kuczmarski says.
“Family isn’t one of the F's because if you speak to that age group many will tell you their family connection is so deeply ingrained they don’t have to work at it. In other words, it’s a given.”
Remember, if you’ve done your job and supported your child over the years with warmth and firmness when necessary, you’ve undoubtedly given your college student what she needs to succeed: “A strong emotional bond that will help her adjust to the freedom and challenges that come with living away from home,” Kuczmarski says.
De-stress the High School Years
High school can be an extremely disruptive period that causes parents to long for the time when protecting curious toddlers from sharp-edged furniture was the most pressing concern of the day! Experimenting with illegal substances, booze, and sex often occur during the high school years, and making bad decisions can be part of the difficult process of your child learning adult survival skills.
Research shows that the adolescent brain isn’t fully formed, and that the teen years are a time of extraordinary neurological changes, especially in the prefrontal cortex — the center of self-regulation. Emotions can be unpredictable and erratic, which can add up to bad judgment and dangerous behavior.
Kuczmarski says it’s important for teens to know you are a safety net. “Be sure to tell them that if they ever feel they’re in trouble — no matter what time it is — you will pick them up (along with their friends if necessary) and will wait until the next day to discuss it.”
Finding the right balance between protection and permission takes some experimenting on the parent’s part. Kuczmarski describes the process with a metaphor: “House rules, like curfews, are the short rope. Curfews give parents some control and promote mutual respect and healthy values,” Kuczmarski says. “But kids who have earned your trust should be given more rope — a later curfew, for example — to allow for personal growth and confidence building.”
Kuczmarski says most parents need to do a lot more stepping back and letting go than they think they should. “We all have stories about teenagers who throw parties without their parent’s knowledge along with other missteps. But keep in mind that when the train wreck happens — and it probably will — there’s a lot of learning that goes along with it.”
Connect and Listen Well
To relieve the stress of high school, Kuczmarski recommends staying connected and doing a lot of listening. “In my book there’s an illustration of a parent behind a desk with a sign that reads: Open 24 Hours,” she laughs. “The truth is that expressing empathy is often the best thing a parent can do. Acknowledge that your kids aren’t in an easy place, but tell them they’ll get through it and you are there to help.”
Whacky play is another terrific de-stressor. “It’s really important to laugh together, and carve out time to have fun as a family,” Kuczmarski says. “Everyone thinks they know what other family members consider fun, but if you share it around the dinner table you’ll really know.”
Be creative and indulge in each other’s ideas as a family unit periodically. “Maybe it’s a family board game night or a basketball game on the driveway. It doesn’t matter, but be sure everyone participates — even the complainers.”
Take turns giving each child a turn to pick the fun activity. “I promise you’ll make some memories and may even look back on their high school years with fondness,” Kuczmarski says.
Susan Kuczmarski, Ed.D. Author of three books on parenting and families. Her forthcoming title, “Becoming a Happy Family: Pathways to the Family Soul,” will be released in December 2014. Her bestseller, “The Sacred Flight of the Teenager: A Parent’s Guide to Stepping Back and Letting Go” received a prestigious “Seal of Approval” award from the National Parenting Center.