After Mother's Day, when I'd already shifted gears and started thinking about high school and college graduation events, I had a conversation with a 26-year-old woman who told me about a phone call to her mom. She'd sent a card and small gift to her mom for Mother's Day, and then last Sunday, when the holiday finally arrived, she called to check in. She wanted to know: Had the gift arrived? Was everything okay? Her mother, who sounded overjoyed but also as if she might sob, said that she'd just then been remembering the morning, almost 10 years ago, when she'd helped move her only daughter's suitcases and boxes into a college dormitory.
"You want everything for your daughter," this mom said into the phone, "and you'll do anything you can for her, but one day you drop her off at school, and then you just hope you'll hear from her again!" Surprised by her mom's emotion, the young woman said: "But Mom, I call you all the time!" And this, of course, was true, but her mom was speaking to something else--to the fact that being a parent involves a particularly complicated kind of "letting go." The effort, awareness and selflessness this requires is something we rarely talk about when celebrating graduations and preparing for what comes next in our children's lives.
Most of us, when we become parents, rediscover what it means to truly love another person. Our children are born and then not a day goes by when we're not making sacrifices for them in all sorts of necessary, unplanned and sometimes even unpleasant ways. Most often we're only as happy as our least happy child. We tend to want for our children the opportunities we didn't have, whether that means dance and music lessons, theater classes or participation on sports teams that practice several days a week. And when our children succeed at something--at anything, really, but especially the things at which they want to succeed--we're filled with pride, and perhaps the sense that our parenting is "good enough" and that our children are fulfilling their potential. By way of example, all three of my sons showed a talent for painting and drawing at a very young age. Their mother, a middle school art teacher, helped me frame their work and display it in my office. So even now, 20 years later, I'm filled with a strange happiness when I glance up at the wall behind my red patient couch and see "Happy Man," my middle son Adam's portrait of a grinning, blond-haired, triangle-nosed, olive-eyed child and adolescent psychiatrist.
Much of this probably sounds obvious. But what I'm trying to get at is the undeniable, colossal significance of the 18 years we spend with our children, from their first breaths and steps to their first days at school, first dates and all the other new discoveries, disappointments and successes that happen along the way. We send them out into the adult world, after their high school graduations, and then we wait quietly, hoping we've equipped them to make the myriad adult decisions that await them. We hope, despite all the things we didn't do over the years, and because of the things we did do, that our children somehow have what it takes to decide for themselves what matters, to choose amid all the temptations and pressures that bombard them from the moment they step outside without parental strings.
The choices before them will be vast and very often incomprehensible. As parents, we want reassurance that we've prepared our children for this. We want to be certain that while we've encouraged our sons and daughters to achieve at school and work, we've also instilled in them the deeper understanding that happiness comes not from perfect grades, job titles- or salary figures. Health and well-being--indeed, success--comes from our quality of relationships.
To those of you who have a high school senior this year: I know that "letting go" of your son or daughter after graduation will be a difficult, even heart-wrenching process. But try not to focus on the physical separation. Your parent-child relationship, from the beginning, has been one of separation. It is now at a transition point, but as in any other stage in your child's life, you can make an enormous difference.
Here are some ways to stay involved in your child's life as we move into summer and the months and years ahead:
- Establish regular times for phone calls and/or visits with your child.
- Be aware of how your own college or first work experiences affect your expectations for your child.
- Work toward creating a dynamic in which your child feels supported and heard. But try not to pry for information. Eighteen-year-olds, in particular, want to feel independent.
- Remind your child that the first year away from home--and freshman year, for those who go to college--is a very difficult transition. While some teens are at ease on day one, there is no set time for "normal adjustment." Leave the door open for conversations about the challenges and new responsibilities that come with moving away and/or attending a university.
- Discuss your expectations with regard to financial responsibility and school or work obligations.
- Encourage your child to develop healthy friendships and to have a support system outside of the family. It's a good idea to talk about what constitutes a "healthy" friendship, because teens, lacking in real world experience, may be less selective when making friends in new social settings.
- Prepare your child for new relationships, including sexual relationships. Talk about how to manage potential conflict with roommates as well as friends and boyfriends/girlfriends.
- Discuss the consequences of risk-taking behaviors, drugs and alcohol. While you're at it, start a conversation about eating disorders, which are especially prevalent among college-aged women.
- Talk to your child if you observe changes in emotions, behaviors or social activities. These may be signs of a serious mental health problem.
- Remind your teen, weekly--or even more often, if necessary--that help is available if he/she feels stressed, anxious, overwhelmed, or sad.
Harold S. Koplewicz, M.D.
President, The Child Study Center Foundation, Inc.
Director, Nathan S. Kline Institute for Psychiatric Research