You’d think I’d know what to expect! The child graduating from high school in a couple of short weeks is the fourth to launch. But somehow the arrival of graduation day still takes me surprise. It seems to have happened in a heart beat – the wonderful arc from babyhood to now. There have been lots of practice transitions, of course: first to daycare, then kindergarten, to elementary school, middle school, high school. But this one feels different – only because it really is.
Going away to college is just that – going away. Come fall, the rhythm of our daughter’s days and ours will be dramatically different. We all know that this summer is going to be about making the transformation from teenager-at- home to young-adult-out-in-the-world. I’ve learned to treasure this summer of in-between. It’s a time for getting ready and for letting go. I’ve also learned a few things along the way from our three older children. It’s reassuring that psychologist colleagues who specialize in young adults tell me that what I’ve observed and experienced is pretty typical.
No matter how excited and happy we all are that the next child is heading off to school, it’s still a change. Even positive, expected, and welcomed change is change. And change is stressful. It’s not unusual for young people to occasionally have a meltdown or get irritable. It’s also not unusual to find their parents being overly sentimental or cranky now and then. It’s part of the process. Shifts in mood only certify both parties as normally abnormal. I’ve learned that it will all settle down, probably by Thanksgiving.
Not surprisingly, kids deal with this transition as they have many others. The shy one will approach it with the same quiet anxiety that is always there with change. The kid who covers worry with boldness and noise will do the same now too. A personality transplant doesn’t come with the high school diploma. None the less, the kids have been growing up in ways we don’t always get to witness first hand. Home is often the safe place; the place where the child feels he doesn’t have to try quite so hard. At one time or another, someone outside my family has commented on the maturity and insightfulness of one of my transitioning kids. Ironically, it’s often at a time when I’m despairing that that very same child doesn’t seem at all ready to tackle the world.
Some kids start to distance from their parents and siblings well before the car is packed. Fights with siblings and parents over seemingly minor things get more frequent and more intense as the summer months go by. It’s as if the only way the child who is leaving can bear to move on is by finding something to be angry about. “It was a really tough summer,” said one of my friends. “Nothing I said or did was okay. When he got housing information in the mail, I suggested he give his new roommate a call and was told to mind my own business. Two weeks later, he was upset with me for not helping him figure out how to sign up for a special Freshman floor. I didn’t even know he was considering it.”
Other kids become surprisingly clingy and moody, as if they only just figured out that they really are leaving home in a significant way. “I got more hugs in the August before he went to school than I’d had for the prior 4 years”, my neighbor sighed. Her son went to a school 6 states and a plane fare away. “Of course, it was not okay for me to get weepy“, she added. Probably it was all he could do to manage his own feelings. Fortunately, my neighbor and her spouse have a supportive group of friends and extended family who could listen and be there for them while they were working on being there for him.
Equally startling to some parents is the reaction of younger siblings. The very kids who regularly bickered with and/or ignored each other sometimes have a very hard time with the separation. “When my big sister went off to college,” says my youngest, “I was very excited for her. But after she’d been gone for a few days, I suddenly realized I wasn’t going to see her unless we made complicated plans. She was always like a second mom to me! If it weren’t for Instant Messenger, it would have been terrible.” Fortunately my oldest got it. She did stay in touch. She did invite her little sister to come to her college for a weekend visit. She did make sure to spend time with her when she was home on vacations. Never the less, it was a huge adjustment for them both.