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Got a high school graduate? Three things parents need to know this summer

High school graduation season is here and excitement is everywhere. Neighborhoods are being marked by balloons in school colors indicating “the party is here,” and streets are being lined with the cars of well wishers making the rounds at open houses.

But what happens after the diplomas are handed out and the celebrations are done? Can parents breathe a well-deserved sigh of relief? Not so fast.

Many onlookers believe that most high school graduates are not fully prepared for “the real world.” A Google search on “preparing teens for graduation” would have us believe the focus should be on transcripts, GPAs, college admission requirements, work and community service experiences, and job applications.

Begin to incrementally release control by allowing more decision-making freedom and holding back on correcting, reminding, and overly “helping.” This is the time for you to move from driver to passenger seat in your teen’s life.

But with college graduation rates lagging and employers complaining how woefully underprepared young people are for the demands of the workplace, we have to question whether we’re missing the forest for the trees in preparing teens for adulthood.

The time after graduation and before the launch is filled with anxiety, for sure—both for parents and teens.

Teens are experiencing the stress of losing their comfortable support systems, their friends are taking off in different directions, and they’re feeling the impending pressures and responsibilities of adulthood.

Parents are asking questions like,” Have I taught them everything they need to know? Will they make good decisions? How will our relationship change? Are they ready for independence?” That’s a lot of stress—for everyone!

Realistically, parents can’t squeeze 18 years of “what might we have missed?” into the last six weeks before their young adult leaves the nest. However, with some strategic effort, they can make vital last-minute deposits of wisdom and encouragement, and position their graduates for success in their new environments.

First, Prepare for the Destination

  1. Talk with your teen about the changes they will experience and some successful strategies for navigating them, particularly coping and relational skills.
  2. Help them plan ahead for ways to meet new people and reassure them that it takes time and trust to build new friendships. What are their “must haves” in a true friend? The most common derailer for young people after the launch is loneliness, whether they are on a college campus or living at home while their friends go off to college.
  3. Teach them time management and organization strategies. All too soon they’ll be managing their own schedules with loads of distractions. Equip them for this challenge.
  4. Point out that they’ll have to earn the right to be heard, respected, and granted privileges; they’re not “entitled” to any of that. Encourage them to apply their best efforts in every arena and be a standout in terms of character, teamwork, and work ethic.

Next, Prepare the Relationship

  1. Build an enduring relationship that will transition from parent-child to adult-young adult. Carefully monitor your “relationship capital” with your teen. Do you have a positive or negative balance in your “account?” Time your delicate conversations strategically when they’re willingly engaged.
  2. Discuss communication expectations for after they leave home. If your young adult will be away at college, how often will you expect to hear from each other and under what circumstances? If he/she will still be living at home, what will be the new, more “adult” boundaries and expectations now that he/she is no longer a high school student? Being realistic and respectful on both sides is the key.
  3. Consider a weekly meeting at a coffee shop (neutral territory) to discuss the upcoming transition. Go through a book together that can help raise pertinent questions and guide your conversations, such as "What I Wish I Knew at 18, a book I developed with Dennis Trittin (LifeSmart Publishing). Third party voices are especially powerful at this time.

Finally, Prepare for Transition

  1. Begin to incrementally release control by allowing more decision-making freedom and holding back on correcting, reminding, and overly “helping.” This is the time for you to move from driver to passenger seat in your teen’s life.
  2. Speak positively about your expectation of their success and your unwavering belief in them. Avoid too much talk of “losing my baby” or anticipating out loud the tremendous sense of loss you will feel; this can erode their confidence and lead to feelings of guilt over leaving home.
  3. Celebrate a rite of passage to mark the transition between childhood and adulthood, such as a simple ceremony, special gift, or letter of affirmation. We aren’t always good about this in American culture, but it can help tremendously in terms of empowering young adults and releasing them with blessing and confidence into the next season of their lives.

Most importantly, seek to understand your graduate’s feelings about the impending changes he or she will be experiencing, often alternating between anticipation and apprehension.

Don’t take it personally if they want to spend more time with friends before they head off to their destination. They may vacillate between wanting to cling to the last moments of childhood and wanting to rush headlong into the “freedom” of adulthood.

Give them space either way. There will be plenty of opportunities for dialogue in “real time” as they encounter the pressures and responsibilities of adult life.

This last summer at home, if navigated strategically, can pave the way for your future conversations with them—and an enduring, mutually valued relationship with your adult children.

Arlyn Lawrence is the editor, curriculum developer and seminar leader for LifeSmart Publishing, and the co-author of "Parenting for the Launch" and "What I Wish I Knew at 18" with Dennis Trittin.