The transition from home to college or another learning experience is a very big change. It is quite likely the biggest change your teen has ever faced in his or her whole life. Life changes, even wonderful ones, are invariably stressful and each person handles it differently. For some kids, this stress can mean things like sleeping more and even crying more. For other kids, the stress can be expressed as impatience and bad temper.
Whether your older teen has never moved before or has moved from place to place in the past, your child knows that this time will be different because she is doing it all on her own. Even if your daughter is very excited about moving out of her family home and starting a new more adult life on her own, she probably feels daunted at the prospect of everything she will have to figure out as she learns how to live and be happy in a new place. She knows what she is leaving, but cannot really know what she is starting until she gets there.
New beginnings also mean endings—this upcoming move is the point at which your son’s childhood ends. Of course, he may not be going far and he will probably be coming home for frequent visits. And his college could be a wonderful place. But leaving home means that coming home will never be quite the same again for him. Ironically, the happier the childhood your older teen has had, the harder their transition may be.
Sometimes I wonder whether the intense irritation and annoyance that is so common between parents and kids at this stage is a way to mask the truly deep feelings of loss and grief both are experiencing. In my experience, this sadness is rarely spoken of openly. Kids know that they are supposed to be happy about leaving home—and they probably are. Parents know they are supposed to be proud and happy to see their children graduating and moving on—and they, too, are probably happy about it. But at the same time, both parents and kids are often feeling a great sense of sadness about imminent changes that feel inevitable yet terribly sad.
Your child means the world to you, and you are incredibly important to him or her, too. Graduation from high school signals you both that you will soon be moving apart.
Try not to take your older teen’s difficult attitude personally right now, though you will certainly put reasonable limits on what you are willing and not willing to listen to. His irritability is likely a reflection of his own stress and his strong, yet ambivalent, emotions right now. Your feelings, too, are probably in upheaval—making you feel more sensitive and easily hurt. Be gentle with yourself and with him, everyone is probably feeling extra vulnerable right now.
Acknowledging why your son or daughter is probably stressed, and acknowledging why you are especially sensitive to his or her emotional outbursts, may help you both weather this transition better. Try not to expect too much, and be as patient as you can for the next few months.
You will have plenty of time, in the months and years to come, when you both can develop new ways to stay connected and care about each other. Your child’s childhood is ending, but your new adult parent-child relationship is beginning.