Families in Transition: Parents with High School- and College-Age Children

Remember when your babies were “babies?” Little hands that cupped your face, their eyes brimming with unconditional love? Hold that picture in your mind. You’re going to need it! Buckle up friends, the ride you’re about to take with your high school child and college-age child is a white knuckler! But having been through it, I promise it is very rewarding, too. You will fall in love all over again with these people you made, as they learn to “adult.”

As your children enter high school and then college, parenting as you knew it will have to change. There will be a myriad of terrifying decisions on the horizon. Your first instinct may be to panic and put them back in your pouch. I often suggested “Home College” to our daughter and son. Yeah, they think their Mom is pretty funny, but was I really kidding?

I’ll admit I panicked. I was going to need a plan. It’s what I do. I try to anticipate bends in the road up ahead. Plans give me a false sense of security, which was what I needed at the time! I listed the skills they might need to make the best choices when I was not there to guide them. Soon, I would move from coach to a place on the sideline.

Our daughter is five years older than our son. She has said the oldest child is the “practice child,” and in this case, she wasn’t far wrong. Many of the lessons I learned about being a better parent I learned from her (thank you, Samantha). As she, then he, matriculated, I noticed my list changed. So much so, it began to look like the opus of a madman. The original bullets are now riddled with scribbles, strikeouts, arrows, footnotes, and underlines. I would like to save you from this madness; here are the remaining suggestions that were actually invaluable.

  1. Emotional Regulation: With teens, everything is magnified. Listen, without over-relating; to them, it is not about you. When they become overwhelmed, talk about self-soothing techniques. Ex.: breathe, color, listen to music, journal, or exercise (endorphins). When they’re calm, ask them to suggest possible solutions and encourage them to work it out.
  1. Routines and Rituals: In high school, encourage your child to create and protect specific study spaces and times. In college, it will be tempting to skip the books and play, a routine will help them stay focused. They should automate reminders for assignments and exam dates in MS Outlook or on their phones. If possible, encourage a regular bedtime during the week; sleep is important.
  1. Family Core Values: reinforce these so that when you’re not with them they WILL make good choices. Model these and compliment them when you see these. Ex.: be respectful, always try to do your best, maintain integrity (doing what’s right even if it’s not popular), be responsible for your actions. That also means letting them face the music, if necessary!
  1. Friends: praise them for choosing their friends wisely. Remind them of their value, and to protect their boundaries while respecting the boundaries of others (great roommate advice). “Neither a borrower nor a lender be.” And that we do not give in to peer pressure; if it doesn’t feel right, it probably isn’t.
  1. Limits: Explain why rules exist and their consequences. When they test their limits (and they will), be cool and chose your battles wisely. Established consequences must be followed through every time, or you will lose credibility.

When they come home from college, they will be different, they have lived on their own (with no curfew, eating what and when they want, being messy, etc.…). Talk about this with them. Decide what you can live with and what you expect from them. Remember, you want them to want to come home, but don’t forget, if they are going to be treated like adults—they can help more, too!

Our children are discovering who they are, separate from us. This is both exciting and terrifying. Our compassion and consistency will make it easier in this transition. It’s going to be OK. When you can steal a moment to watch them without being seen, I think you’re really going to like the young adults you made. I know I do.