In between seeing clients on Thursday, I hopped over to Facebook to see what was going on in my little world (as opposed to those who click on US News and World Report to see what is going on in the big world). There were many high school graduations in Fairfax County on Thursday and I was treated to numerous photos of young adults that I have known since they were toddlers donning their caps and gowns. I was also aware that several of my clients were missing their therapy appointments graduating that day and I found myself feeling very emotional.
High School graduation is a pivotal time. I have likened it with parents of clients to jumping off a diving board. Will their child dive in gracefully, belly flop or, like most kids, land somewhere in between with a clean dive, but still getting a little water up the nose ?
The graduate is facing one of his or her first major decisions of life. From ages 5-18, every September the child grabs a backpack and goes off to school. There is no question, it is the law and it is what is done. The September following high school graduation poses many options: school or work, what kind of school, job possibilities, what state to live in, dorm or home, roommates or parents (ha), the list is endless. What used to be simply a question of peanut butter and jelly or turkey and mayo is now an important decision with longterm effects. The weight of these decisions and subsequent effects can bring on anxiety for many of these young graduates.
The family also has growing pains upon graduation. The parents are watching their baby become independent, move out of the home and realize that clean laundry doesn't just happen. They are often thrilled to get the ornery teenager out of the house while still yearning to tuck him in at night. The parents and child must figure out how to negotiate new norms : how often do we call, visit, text? What if he gets sick or she runs out of money? I worked with a mother of a freshman who literally drove 3 hours to her daughter's school several times a month, slept in the daughter's dorm room and was completely enmeshed in the new romantic relationship (e.g. texting the new boyfriend and knowing WAY too much about their physical relationship). I tried to help the mother build some boundaries into her relationship with her daughter while also helping her with her grief; the loss of having her little girl need her as the mommy she so desperately wanted to be. It can be quite a painful process to let go both of the graduate and the identity that surrounds the early parenting years.
Siblings often struggle silently. There is so much attention on the graduate and the parents' empty-nest that we forget that the younger sibling is also saying goodbye. As much as they fight, they are still siblings and share the common link of hating sharing their parents and understanding the subtleties of the family; no one knows your family and/or your parents like your siblings do. I have one client tell me repeatedly that when her brother went to college she lost someone with whom to "diss on mom". Another client shared that he became the center of attention when his sister left for school. Every grade, forgotten chore or misbehavior was under scrutiny because he was, as I like to say "the only fish left in the fishbowl" with parents watching from every angle.
As I witness my clients and their families buy the linens, pick their roommates and say good-byes during the summer after graduation, I leave them with my tell-tale speech: College is an amazing journey; you will meet fantastic people, have wonderful opportunities and go to a party or two, but YOU HAVE TO GO TO CLASS, the attendance officer is staying at high school. College is both a privilege and a responsibility . I have had many a client wind up back on my couch after first semester with a pile of F's, a drinking problem and looking for a job.
My intention is not to portray the gloom and doom of graduation. It is a tremendously exciting time with a great deal of joy. My goal is to identify some of the the problem areas so that if you find that you or your family are struggling with a glitch or two, it is completely normal. These feelings and struggles happen to everyone, thus the tears at graduation, it is part of the package.
To the graduates and their families: CONGRATULATIONS! This is a wonderful time. I wish you the gift of being present for the ride: the ups, the downs and the in-betweens.