Parents of high school seniors, buckle up. These next six months from high school graduation through the first semester of college can be some of the most stressful times parents and their children face.
Reenie Collins, executive director of Health Alliance for Austin Musicians, remembers what it was like when she dropped off her daughter CeCe at Hendrix College in Conway, Ark., three years ago. “It was very, very stressful,” she says. “She was so nervous, and we were so nervous. It wasn’t fun … I’m not a crier, but I did cry.”
CeCe needed her parents to go rather than hang around for all the parent activities that weekend. She needed to start her life as a college student without them, but letting go was hard for everyone. And when she didn’t call for two days because she was having so much fun, that just added to her parents’ worries.
Collins will be dropping off another kid at school in the fall. Son Winston will be a freshman at the University of Texas. While he won’t be leaving town, he will be moving out.
The push and pull between adult and child that happens so acutely during senior year of high school and freshman year of college prompted mother-daughter team Margo Ewing Woodacre and Steffany Bane Carey to write the book, “I’ll Miss You Too: The Off-to-College Guide for Parents and Students.” The book outlines several different scenarios, from applying to college and senior year to the summer after senior year, the first emergency at college, parents’ weekend and the first visit home.
Each scenario is told first from Woodacre’s point of view as a mother with a master’s in social work and then from Carey as her child, who, while now 35 and expecting her second child this month, remembers what those days were like and how it felt like her mother didn’t understand her at all. Each chapter also has a handy tips box.
It’s been updated for 2015 to include more social media and smartphone conflicts that are happening today compared with 2001, when they wrote the first version.
Carey remembers that summer between high school and college as being a time when their relationship was the most strained. “I was really focused on hanging out with friends,” she says. “And Mom was focused on getting me ready for college.”
Woodacre agrees, but also points out that the first visit home was also tough because Carey was now used to being independent and Woodacre still saw her as a child. That first semester was about letting go for Woodacre. “It’s a tough thing, to really let go and trust,” Woodacre says. “She was far away … we had to learn how to communicate. She was now a young adult.”
Carey also remembers that moment when her parents left her after settling her into the dorm. “There was a moment of sheer fear, of, ‘Oh, my God, what have I done?’ I was a thousand miles from home. ‘What did I do?’ ”
One of the best things parents can do for their children is to have the expectation that they are going to succeed, says Dr. Jane Ripperger-Suhler, a child and adolescent psychiatrist at Texas Child Study Center. Even if they have their doubts, they need to put on a brave face. “Let them know that they can do it,” she says. “They need to have that confidence, that self-efficacy.”
Know that they are going to do things like overdraw their bank accounts, forget to do their laundry, go out drinking somewhere. “It’s not the end of the world,” she says. “You have to trust that you did OK as a parent and that your parenting is going to come through in the end.”
Psychologist Mike Brooks of Apa Center thinks of parenting as a dance between dependence and independence, between less freedom and more freedom. By senior year of high school, the parent-child relationship should be more to the child’s independence side rather than dependence.
By the summer after high school and the first year of college, you want to let them lead the dance, with you there to support them if they fall.
The summer before college is a great time to discuss with them their (not your) plan for the next four years. “What are their goals?” he says. “They pre-empt the kid’s goals by telling them what they think they should do.”
Here are some key things our experts suggested parents and children hammer out now before fall:
How will they pay for things? If they are not already on a separate bank account, get them on one now and have them start managing their funds. Will they need to work? How much money will they need to make? How much money will you give to them? What will happen if they need more money or overdraw their bank account? Will they have a credit card, and what will it be used for?
Do they know how to do laundry, make a bed and feed themselves? Seriously, check on this. If they’ve never run a washing machine, teach them. If they don’t know how to cook some basics, help them learn. Teach them about basic cleanliness and then let go. You’ve done your best.
What about the car? Are they bringing one with them? Where will they park? Do they know how often it needs to be tuned up or how to change a tire or whom to call in a roadside emergency?
How will you communicate? Do you expect daily phone calls or texts or do they just need to check in once a week, like we did when we went to school? You want to be in touch, but you also want to be wary of them not connecting with friends at school because they are always calling mom. If you’ve been that helicopter parent (and you know you are) that has known about every test and every social dilemma for the last 18 years, it’s time to get out of their day-to-day business.
What are the expectations about grades? What will happen if they fail a class? What grade-point average do they expect to have compared with what you’re expecting? How will they stay organized and on top of their assignments? Where can they go if they need academic help?
Talk about the bad things that can happen. Don’t lecture, but help them form a plan for when they’ve been drinking too much. Talk about the importance of safety in numbers and having friends who look out for you.
When will they come home and when will you visit? If you have a kid who is staying close to home, you need to set these parameters now. You don’t want the kid who comes home every weekend and doesn’t engage in college life. If your kid is prone to that, perhaps have a once-a-week or once-every-other-week dinner with him and invite him to bring his friends. You’ll make sure your child is connecting with people at college, but you won’t entirely cut him off, either.
What happens when they get sick? Does your child know where to go on campus for medical attention? Does your child know what to do about insurance and have his insurance card? Do they know how to get their medications?
What do they need to do before they get to school? Create a checklist of all the items they need to buy, all the arrangements that need to be made. Make them responsible for getting those things done.
How much time do you expect to be with them this summer? They want to be with their friends; you want to be with them. Make sure everyone is on the same page.
What are the rules when they come home? Is there still a curfew, which might seem silly after three months of no curfew? Can they just agree to let you know their plans and timing? When do you expect to see them? You’ve got to get on their calendar before they come home.
What will you do with yourself? This is an excellent time to find a new hobby, take up volunteer work or learn a new skill. You’ve earned a little you time.