Having a Smooth "Break-up" With Your College-Bound Teen
Dr. Lynn Margolies
Disclaimer: The characters from these vignettes are fictitious. They were derived from a composite of people and events for the purpose of representing real-life situations and psychological dilemmas which occur in families.
As fall approaches, many teenagers will be leaving home for the first time, forging ahead to go to college. In this final leg of the race, families face many challenges in navigating this transition.
Casey, 18, an only child, is struggling with his parents. He is a good kid, bright, funny, well-liked. Diagnosed with ADHD, he has been an “underachiever” with a common but paradoxical blend of high intellect, pseudo maturity, and limited life skills.
Since school ended, Casey, who is close with his parents, has become conspicuously angry - especially at his mom. In family therapy, he is irritable and disinterested, often picking up a book to read. At home, he has been yelling at or ignoring his mom. Privately, however, Casey feels bad and guilty. He told the family therapist he didn’t know what was wrong with him - why he was being mean to his parents for apparently no reason and acting as if he didn’t care.
Casey has good parents. His mom understands him, is non-judgmental, and an excellent advocate. Recently, though, she has become impatient and angry with Casey. She expressed resentment that Casey didn’t want to keep her company when she did chores or errands, complaining she felt taken for granted. Even when Casey did help - she insisted he should not just help, but want to help if he loved her.
As she tries to get Casey ready for college, Casey’s mom feels frustrated by his limitations - taking it personally and wondering where she failed as a mom. Though wanting Casey to be independent, she continues to do things for him that she knows he might not succeed at – rescuing him from facing his limitations. She responds to his distance and attitude with anger and distance of her own. Exasperated, she recently exclaimed that she “just can’t take it any more” - responding to years of tireless effort helping Casey learn basic routines. She sounded curiously oblivious to the fact that he would be leaving home imminently.
Casey’s dad responds to his son’s distance by becoming more involved in his own work. Though generally engaged with Casey, his dad took Casey’s apparent lack of interest in him at face value, insisting this meant it did not matter to Casey whether he was around or available.
What is happening here?
Casey, having just turned 18, is faced with suddenly being “grown up.” The more his mom tells him what to do and what he needs to learn for college, the less confident he feels, requiring him to put up a front of independence and bravado and having to argue the position that he already knows how to do everything. This dynamic exacerbates his longstanding fear of failure and tenuous self-confidence - typical of kids with learning difficulties - and, at the same time, prevents him from taking responsibility for himself.
Casey is trying to separate emotionally from his mom and is mad and conflicted about his need for her. Being angry and rejecting makes it temporarily easier to say good-bye (and is more bearable than feeling sad and scared). In response to this idea, Casey said jokingly, “Yeah, maybe we should have a big fight right before I go”. Casey is also mad at his mom for not backing off. Her dependency on him to fill a void in her own life adds a burden of guilt and responsibility to the already formidable task of letting go.
Casey needs his dad to buffer the intensity between him and his mom. Casey would likely be receptive to a confident overture from him to schedule some mutually enjoyable activities. The challenge here for parents is to hold steady, to not take teens’ reactions personally or at face value.
What teens need ideally from parents to transition into the world is similar to what toddlers need when first experimenting with autonomy. Mothers’ function is to provide a backdrop of security - following toddlers’ capacities and needs, in sync with their lead. Unimpeded development of self-confidence and independence in children is contingent on mothers’ ability to provide a protective, but not over-protective, or obtrusive presence.
Tips for Parents:
• Have the courage to allow your teen to be more responsible for himself during this time in areas where he has difficulty.
• Schedule mutually enjoyable activities with your teen.
• Don’t take retreating and distance personally or at face value. Don’t react in kind by retreating defensively or in retaliation.
• When having strong reactions, ask yourself if you are responding to your own needs and feelings. Try to manage your moods without involving your teen. • Be available but not imposing.
• Recognize that your teen is doing his best to manage saying good-bye. Have faith that he loves you and don’t make him prove it. When saying good-bye remind him that you know he loves you and that - although you will miss him - you are happy for him and will be fine.
• Think about and plan for this next phase of life and how to fill the void in satisfying ways.
• Make plans to work on your marriage and recognize this will be a transition and potential point of conflict, change, and opportunity.
• When your teen is provoking anger, try not to engage. Tell him that sometimes being mad can make it feel easier to say good-bye and that you are not taking it personally.
• Remind yourself of the ways you have been a good parent and what you value and love about your teen.
• Keep things in perspective and manage your anxiety by lowering the stakes. Accept your teen as he is now, knowing this is but a crossroads. The way your teen is now does not represent how he has “turned out” and does not predict success or failure in life.
• Open up conversation while engaging in an activity with your teen about what he may be looking forward to and worried about college.
• Plan the trip to college and ask your teen if there are things he does or does not want you to do that day. Figure out together how to make that day go smoothly. Say your good-byes beforehand and tell him some of the things you want to say at that time.