Launching a teen: Getting a high-school senior off to college
Seattle Times staff reporter
If parenting is like an endurance race, senior year should be the section where parents triumphantly glide toward the finish line with a smiling graduate-to-be alongside.
Instead, it's often more like Heartbreak Hill at the 20-mile mark of the Boston Marathon, the bump that leaves parents exhausted and wondering what they were thinking 17 years ago.
"Senior year is so much harder than many families anticipate, and they can be broadsided by the challenges that come up," says Jenny Wyatt, co-author of "The Launching Years: Strategies for Parenting from Senior Year to College Life," which will be released by Three Rivers Press early next month.
"A very typical comment would be, 'This is one of the toughest years of parenting.' "
The anxiety of leaving home — and for parents, being left at home — and the struggles of adjusting to a new life can make freshman year tough also.
Wyatt, a mother of four who has "launched" two children, and Laura Kastner, a Seattle psychologist who counsels adolescents and their families, wrote the book to address the difficult two years from a parenting standpoint.
While many books advise students on how to pick a college, few help parents understand the dynamics, stresses and emotions both they and their kids face, they said.
The book covers how to deal with everything from college applications to senioritis to panicked calls home from college to adjusting to a roomier home.
For previous generations, high-school graduation was usually the end of official parenting. Children moved out, found a job and got married soon after age 18. Now, "parenting lasts longer," said Kastner, a clinical professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the University of Washington.
"People don't get married until 25 and 27, for women and men respectively. There's more specialization in education. It takes longer to develop the emotional, social and coping skills to live in a more complex society. And kids need more help to make that transition."
Facing a decision that can shape their future careers, lifelong friends and possibly spouses, it's obvious why choosing and applying to colleges is so stressful for students. But often, parents are wigging out right along with them.
"College application has become almost the rite of passage," Kastner said. "We wrap all our energies around this process of our child going to their next home. And it's got to be the best home around."
Seattle resident Cynthia Stroum found herself biting her tongue much of her daughter Courtney's senior year. "It's their turn," she said. "It may not be the college you'd want to go to, or where you want them to go, but it's their life, not yours."
Still, she says, "the stress level was phenomenal. The pressure put on kids today applying to colleges — it's all-consuming."
Students deal with anxiety about the future by postponing applications and going through senioritis with an academic slump, a blah attitude and aggressive bids for independence. At the same time, parents often ignore their own qualms about their child's impending departure by focusing on their child's flaws.
"The compulsion is for parents to work overtime to put the finishing touches on their children before leaving home," the authors write.
Many seniors get out of line with their assertions for power, a symptom of their natural push for autonomy. Parents can contribute by unwisely holding out age 18 as a Holy Grail of independence, Kastner said.
"If they're in the home, whether they're 18 or 21, there should be some cooperation about how to contribute to the household," she said.
After Courtney found out in December that she was accepted to Connecticut College through early decision, "she mentally checked out of high school," Stroum said. The year's favorite phrase was, "Mom, I wasn't born yesterday."
At some point during senior year or the summer before college, students often go through a period of what the book dubs "spoiling the nest."
"Teens are anxious or uncertain so they create more friction to make sure they want to leave you, and you're pretty sure it sounds good to you, too," Kastner said. "Feeling close and comfortable with their parents would make it way too hard to say goodbye."
Stroum's daughter calls at work to yell at her during the day — "her anxiety's off the charts" — yet she can turn around and wordlessly seek out her mother's affection.
"It's such an amazing push-me, pull-me time," said Stroum, a single mother. "She's driving me absolutely crazy. I want her gone so I can start missing her."
It can be hard on parents because many have already experienced their teens going through a developmental stage called "rapprochement." As early as sophomore year, some students, having established their own identity through the storm of puberty, feel safe being close to parents in a way they couldn't in earlier adolescence.
This spoiling the nest, then, can leave parents wondering what's gone wrong — again. Parents, at least, can take some comfort that the emotional connection is usually back by fall, said Kastner.
Off to college
Courtney leaves next week, and Stroum said the hardest part for her was buying two tickets to Connecticut — but only one for the return flight.
The letter from her daughter's college laid out the schedule: a half-hour to move in, then orientation, goodbyes from 2 to 3 p.m. and a parent tea until 5 p.m. "Then parents are asked to leave," she said.
"That's it. It says don't worry because you'll have your student back at Thanksgiving."
Though Janice Bede's daughter, Britta, is following her two older brothers to close-to-home University of Washington, Bede said she and her husband try to act like they're "away" for college.
"We don't want to be in their faces," she said. "We want them to experience what it's like to be on their own."
Stroum got a taste of what her new life will be like when her daughter studied in Israel for two months last year. She didn't hear anything from her the first 10 days of the trip. "I knew that meant she was having a good time," Stroum said.
When calls do come, they tend to be kids complaining, Kastner said. Unconsciously, "college students' goals for these phone calls are to plug themselves emotionally back into their parents, make extreme statements, download on the parent and thereby purge themselves," the authors note. "Parents tend to be the designated wastebasket for children to dump their negative emotions."
Even though it's upsetting, "parents can think of it as a bit of compliment that only with parents are students free enough to vent," Wyatt said.
It's important for parents to keep perspective, Kastner said. "Because these calls are initiated at times of need, we don't get the full picture of how well they're doing," Kastner said. "They don't call with the good news, they call you with the bad news because they need you more."
After the phone call, the child feels better, while the parent feels worse. "If I've heard it once, I've heard it 100 times: A parent will get a phone call from a child panicked about a test," Kastner said. "The parent spends three days worrying and finally calls back to check in, only to have the child say, 'What test?' "
The other type of phone calls parents are likely to receive are ones asking for money. In workshops and surveys, Kastner found even the most competent parents had "this little misgiving area of 'I wish I'd taught them to live within their means.' "
Students used to a cellphone, designer clothes and a twice-a-day latte often have a hard time adjusting to the reduced standard of living when they're away from mom and dad. But the authors advise parents to let their kids live with the discomfort.
"It's hard for parents because we're away from them and don't get to see them and hug them and feed them every day," Kastner said.
"So it's very tempting when they call up and ask a favor like a little extra shopping money not to say, 'Sure, honey, you deserve it, you've been working really hard.'
"But if we want them to live within a budget, we can't be handing them perks all the time and the next minute complaining about the entitled generation."
While acknowledging the pain of separating from a child, the authors balk at the term "empty nest."
"The nest is not empty — you're still in it and you still have a life," Wyatt said.
"When your child goes to college it should be a time you can expand on those things you have up and running anyway," Kastner said. "You don't switch a switch and start developing your life after child-rearing the day they leave."
Kastner says some parents, mostly mothers, come to her for consultation when their child is in high school and they realize they've devoted all their time and energy to parenting.
"They know they have work to do so it's not a trip they lay on the child: 'My life is over thanks to your leaving,' " she said.
"This is my version of a midlife crisis," said Stroum, who has teased Courtney that she plans to enroll in school and move in with her.
"I've been so busy raising her that this day came upon me quicker than I imagined."
Though Stroum is excited for her daughter and tries to be positive — "she'll be fine, and eventually I'll be great, too" — the prospect of getting on the plane back home alone is almost unbearable.
"My baby's leaving," Stroum said, "and I know she's probably never coming back."
Stephanie Dunnewind: 206-464-2091 or email@example.com.