High school graduations and departures for college are a rite of passage not only for students, but for their parents and siblings. Like all change—no matter how positive—the very symbolic transition of a graduate from dependent child to semi-independent young adult creates ripples for a family. If unaddressed, these emotional tremors can grow into earthquakes that threaten the foundation of relationships between couples or among the siblings in a family.
As a psychotherapist, each year I guide families through the transition from high school graduation to the college drop-off each spring and summer. My specialties include women in transition, couples and special needs families. In addition to addressing core emotional issues, I develop concrete strategies that my clients can draw on to ease their way through this time of familial and individual evolution.
Women in Transition
- All women with children going off to college, especially a first or last, are by definition in some form of transition.
- Feelings at this time can be complex and intense: joy mingled with loss. Pride colored by regret. Within a single day, you may experience relief at a teenager’s imminent departure, sadness, and even fear for what the future holds. This is normal and healthy.
- Changes are occurring quickly, but you don’t have to have all the answers at once. In fact, it may be better to hang tight during this period and avoid rushing into new decisions. Wait until a month or two into fall, when the smoke will clear, before making a major decision.
- Sit down with a pencil and paper in a tranquil spot and write down what you’d like your life to look like a year from now. Don’t hem yourself in with practicalities. This isn’t a goals list, but a one or two paragraph narrative describing your ideal state of being and circumstances.
- Stay grounded with the activities, people and places you love the most. It is particularly helpful to speak to other women whose lives are in transition—those who can empathize and commiserate with you.
- Transitions and life changes, such as a high school graduation or the departure of a child for college can exacerbate the tensions in a marriage.
- It helps to plan ahead and made decisions with a cool head, not in the heat of the moment. Who is invited to the graduation ceremony or party? What will we be contributing for monthly expenses? Who will be dropping the child off at college? Seemingly simple issues can be salt to raw feelings. Planning ahead and leaving room for discussion helps keep tensions in check.
- The end of high school is a watershed moment for parents. Invariably, they look inward and trace the trajectory of their own lives to date. If there are displeasures or regrets, those feelings are heightened during this time.
- Husband and wife may feel very differently about the same event. The end of high school and the advent of college may fill parents with relief, pride, sadness, loss and even guilt. It’s okay for each partner in a marriage to experience this time differently and have his or her own responses.
Special Needs Families
- Many special needs families have walked a tightrope between caring for a special needs child, while also raising their other children.
- Celebrations that are normal rites of passage and recognitions of achievement and growth may spark feelings of guilt or regret about a special needs child who is on another road.
- Include the special needs child in appropriate ways that leave the spotlight on the graduate: a card, a toast at a party, and a shopping trip to buy a graduation gift are all ways that the child with special needs can be included.
- This is not a time to ask a teenage child in the family to dim his shining light so that a special needs sibling doesn’t feel “bad.”
- Keep the spirit positive and celebratory, but make sure that every person in the family has a meaningful role to play in the celebration.