How To Cope With Your Teen's High School Graduation

05/15/2016 07:54 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

So your child is graduating from high school? Mazel! Congratulations! Bravo! Way to go, parent and graduate! Graduation from high school is a big deal. It really is. But it took me a few rounds to really appreciate that.

I remember when my first two kids graduated from high school, my husband and I were told by extended family members that high school graduation "wasn't really that big of a deal." It wasn't something that cousins, aunts, uncles, grandparents fly in for, or really even celebrate. There were no cards, no gifts sent. At first I was disappointed, but eventually I accepted that idea, and figured maybe it was just an immediate family thing-- something you celebrate at home, with friends who also have kids graduating, or who have spent a lot of time with you and your kids.

My mom lived here at the time, so she attended our daughter's graduation from high school. My husband's father, Papa, flew in for our son's graduation. Grandma had died jut a few months before, and it was his first visit to see us, on his own. It was also perfect timing for his grandson's graduation. Other than that, it was pretty low-key. We had an open house for our daughter, but our son didn't want one. There were special dinners together, gifts from us to them, and we all felt excited and anticipatory about the next phase. But there was little hoo-ha from the rest of our clan, and I figured maybe it wasn't really as big as it felt to me. My husband and I are the eldest in each of our families. Our kids are often breaking the ice, and we are generally trying to figure out how things should be. Three high cchool and two college graduations later, and I see things very differently. High school is a much bigger deal than some people realize-- until they're in the moment.

High school graduation is the end of a lot of things, and the start of so many others.

It's the end of your child's time in schools that you (the parent) know, that you have been a part of. It's the end of a time when you know their teachers and the place they go each day. It's the end of a time when you are invited in, to volunteer and be included. You have probably walked the halls, and met most of the people your children spend their days with, and there's comfort in that. You've had your fingers on the pulse of their lives. There's comfort in knowing that you are part of your children's world, in an intrinsic and crucial way. When they graduate from high school, that phase of their lives, and yours, changes, forever. That is the part I really didn't get, when we were going through it the first time.

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When their dreams were of first grade

As my daughter graduated, I was caught up in the fact that my first baby was finishing school here, and would be moving 4,000 miles across the country to start college. The idea that she would be so far away, not living in our home anymore, was what seemed central at the time. I hadn't begun to imagine what was next, and I've since learned that the "next" is huge! High school is the culmination of 12 years of schooling, again, where you are tied to your children on a daily basis. That phase started with walking hand-in-hand in to meet the teacher. The new phase will begin with watching them drive away, or taking them to their new dorm, and driving away from them. Even if you know you'll see them, even if they're going to school close by, that drive can be one of the hardest rides of your life.

However, the next four years will bring changes so much bigger than the previous 12, that your head will spin! I thought I knew that going in, so will you. But, until you wake up four years later and face another graduation, it's nearly impossible to understand just how different things will be. That may not seem to make sense: 12 years versus four, but the four years after high school, the four years of college (if that's the path your child takes) will take your child out into a world that you're not really part of. You've raised your child to go out there and set the world on fire, whatever that looks like to your child, but it's hard to imagine that they really won't need to hold your hand anymore in that world. You wont be invited to roast marshmallows around that fire, and it isn't your job to make sure the flames are tended any more. It's their fire. They will, from time to time, reach for your hand, but they won't rely on you the way they once did. They'll be forging a new path and you need to step aside a little and let them fly.

So how do you get through it? With a wish and a prayer. With lots of humor. With some distance -- if you can't step back from some things, you'll be pulling your hair out. By taking a look inside yourself. Yes, you raised your child to set the world on fire, but you don't get to choose the fires. You don't get to call the shots. If your child's going to surf their own waves, you need to watch from the shore and cheer. You don't get to surf too. You get through it by accepting that your lives have changed, and that you can't go back. Doesn't that all sound so practical? Doesn't it seem like common sense? That doesn't mean that it will feel easy or reasonable when you're in it. If you've been a mom or dad for 18 years, none of it will feel easy or clear.

For the first time in your child's life, you wont know where they are each night. You will have to adjust to sleeping in your own bed, not sure if they are tucked in and safe in theirs. They are. You will not know what they are eating each night, or if they had a good breakfast before class. You won't know if they went to class. No one will call you if they miss that class, or if they eat a cheeseburger for every meal. You won't know what's happening, unless they tell you... and they may not tell you everything. It's the first time in their lives that they get to try things on and figure things out, without running to mom and dad, and that feels good. Trust me, they will be having moments of uncertainty too. But they will be excited to figure it out on their own.

You have some things to figure out too... you just don't know it yet. It will build and wiggle around in your brain, until your final bird flies... then you'll know that there are indeed things to figure out, that are about you, not them. Your face, looks back from the mirror, so differently than it did when this ride began. It's all tied up in a complex tangle of years of kindergarten to high school and favorite waffles, of trips to the zoo, first play dates, and first sleep overs. It's tied up in careers you left or careers you kept, marriages that have aged while babies grew, or marriages that ended. It's woven to first crushes, proms and Homecomings, broken hearts (yours, theirs). How handsome or beautiful they looked in countless moments along the way. It's tied to their innocent promises to never grow up and your hope that that might be possible and knotted up in their sweet smells and their big stinky sneakers. The stuff left here and there and all over your house, and now gone.

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These boots were made for walking... I keep them by the front door, as a reminder.

Graduation from high school is the shift from everything that you've known, to everything that will come after-- for you and for your children. There's no way to know what the years after high school will bring, but it's the beginning of an entirely new phase of life. So, as you approach graduation day, and the blur of a summer that follows, savor it. Enjoy it. In the weeks before they leave, find-- no carve out- sacred moments when you are all a family. Enjoy those simple, ordinary moments. Your kids will have one foot out the door... it's what they do. They'll make it look like their friends are more important, and that you are just in the way. They will likely make you wish they were gone. Really, it happens. Let it slide. Shake it off. But, find those moments. Cherish them, the moments and the kids. Both will be gone before you blink.

When summer ends, they will pack their things and leave your home, and they will never come back as the child you watch leave. They'll come home and sleep in their room, they'll call to share some of what's happening in their lives (especially in the beginning), but they won't be the kid that walks up to get that diploma. They wont be the same kid who leaves in September. They're on their way to being on their own... leaving high school, leaving your home, is their first step... and they've worked hard to get there. Smile, pat yourself on the back and know that you raised an independent child. You did your job. And then buckle your seat belt; the next four years will be an incredible ride.

Is your child graduating? Are you miles from this moment? Then file this away; you'll need it later. Share your thoughts in the comment section; I'm listening. Here's more, a piece I wrote last year about this subject; check it out.
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