As our children move on to college our collective anxiety – and excitement heightens. How will they do? Will they succeed? And what does success even mean? How will I do without them at home rolling their eyes at me? What will this next phase of life look like for them and for the family left behind?
I believe that this is the time to focus on the simple things in your life. The time your children live at home is precious and brief. So I offer a bit of advice to those parents approaching the last few months of having your young adult child at home:
1. Pick your battles. The other day I overheard a conversation between a mother and daughter in a department store. When I say overheard I mean that they were discussing prom dresses at a level that would make overhearing mandatory for anyone in the fitting room. They were yelling about which color dress the girl should get: light blue or gold. The daughter wanted gold while the mom preferred light blue. Now, of course I don’t know the whole story but I have a feeling that, like many seniors in high school, this girl would be moving on to college or a job next year, away from the family nest.
I wondered why this mom would choose to spend some of this precious time arguing over a dress color? I would tell her what my teenage daughter often tells me: Calm down. Is this really a battle you want to wage? Do you want her to remember the epic war over a color hue? Or do you want her to pick the dress of her dreams and have a lasting memory of you, her mother, looking at her with smiling eyes. You are creating memories and the battles that happen during this time will be the ones she carries with her to adulthood.
So pick your battles, the fewer the better.
2. Make sure they know you love them – unconditionally. I saw a family who came to see me in my therapeutic practice. I’ve changed the details to shield their identities, but this scenario has happened often and the story is always the same.
The parents brought their son to me to ask me to change him back. He has become gay and they wanted to know what I can do to encourage him to become straight again. There must be a therapeutic solution. I then had the difficult conversation that many parents must hear. I told them that their son was most likely never straight and that he actually doesn’t have a psychological problem.
He didn’t need my services to alter his sexual orientation. They needed to rethink their orientation toward him. Typically at this point the parents are dazed and confused and I make sure that they confirm that their son is still the same person – the same boy they have always cherished and loved. They never came back to see me so I have no way of knowing if they shifted toward acceptance and love. I can only hope they embrace their son exactly as he is.
It’s a leap, I know. But as children leave high school it’s so important that they know you love them. Tattoos, bad driving record, sexual fluidity and all. This is the most vibrant moment in their lives – and the most vulnerable. They’re learning who they are and what they want and you’re no longer there to tell them what that is.
3. Be happy for them. But not so happy that you change their room into a yoga retreat the second you drop them off at the dorm. Let them go and let them come back when they need. You can’t script this transition, it’s theirs. You can be there for them to come home to for homemade dinners, the warmth of their own bed or their beloved dog. Or they might transition easily and rarely come home. You’ve raised them for this moment.
So do settle down and think about what gifts you want to give your child as they prepare for college. And by gifts I don’t mean which car or computer. I mean the lasting gifts of unconditional love, acceptance and joy.
Karen Kozlowski Graham, LCSW, Management Consultant and Psychotherapist, has worked in the fields of interpreting, social work and leadership with Deaf and hard of hearing people for over 30 years. She is one of the founders and was the CEO of SignOn: A Sign Language Interpreter Services in Seattle. She also started and managed a psychiatric rehabilitation program for Deaf people in Chicago. She is published and has presented in the areas of interpreting, mental health, hearing loss, substance abuse and human service program development. She has a BS from Northwestern University in the field of Communicative Disorders and an MSW from the University of Chicago in Social Service Administration. This program won a top award from the American Psychiatric Association for its unique and outstanding curriculum. Karen also won the prestigious Elizabeth Butler award from the University of Chicago for outstanding work in human services. Karen is a former Certified Sign Language Interpreter and is currently a Licensed Clinical Social Worker.