Back-to-school goes on forever in my family. For 50 years, between one and 6 of us have been preparing for Back-to-School this time of summer. Despite my husband’s recent retirement from his job teaching high school social studies, this year is no different.
I just spent the past 10 days driving across the country and setting up my second-born in her apartment in Connecticut as she gets ready to begin grad school. Hayley is one of four kids, so this is not my first rodeo. Nonetheless, as we said our tearful good-byes, I was reminded of how parenting is a job that remains complicated long after the kids leave home.
Hayley suggested I write a blog this week that would speak to other parents with adult children returning to school. I can help you to walk that fine line between supporting and enabling, or between being close and wanting to strangle each other. Here’s what I can share about my experience.
1. Know Your Own Weaknesses.
I am generally efficient and have a lot of experience moving, so I tend to do things myself when I should simply be supportive of Hayley’s efforts to negotiate her move. This is exacerbated by the unfortunate fact that I am kinda bossy. So my note to myself is to back off. Let Hayley know that I am confident she can figure things out, that everyone falls down sometimes and she will too, and that I am there to toss around some options if she wants them.
Some parents are a lot more hands off, and their kids might want a little more assistance. They want to feel that they are important enough for their parent to take time off to carry boxes, scrub a bathroom, or cook a meal for tired movers.
The important thing is to figure out what you can do to show your kid you believe in their ability to make grown up decisions, while still taking care of them in ways that make them feel special.
2. Short-Circuit the Overwhelm
Whether you are the kind of parent who needs to learn to get more involved or less involved, there is a time when it’s good to “take charge” a bit.
Every young adult going back to school will have periods of strong overwhelm. Be on the lookout for when this starts to happen. This is the time to insist on a break to do something fun. Do something totally unrelated to school, moving, or the future.
It’s a good idea to have something already in mind for this time. Do something restful if you’ve been physically working hard moving. Do something active if you’ve been having long serious talks or spending a lot of time driving. Get outside and get some sunshine and some nature. Go on a hike or have a picnic in the park. Play a game. Do something silly and lighthearted.
Showing your adult child how to recognize overwhelm and take an appropriate break is a critical parenting task. Self-care is an important skill for them to have in order to avoid burnout. Having an adult child experience burnout far from home is scary. Teach them to take breaks.
3. Let Them Have Their Own Learning Experience
For those of us who tend to jump in and do everything, this rule is somewhat of a re-iteration of number 1. Even the most laid-back parent, however, can be sorely tempted to jump in to try to prevent their kid from “making he same mistakes I did at your age”. Ouch.
When you disagree about something, think long and hard about how important it is in the grand scheme of things. Your kid will, without a doubt, make some stupid mistakes that you are certain could be easily prevented by insisting they follow your suggestions. Resist this temptation.
This can be sooo hard to do. The hardest mistakes to watch your kid make are the same ones you made. Why can’t they learn from your mistakes? The answer is that they can, but they sure won’t if they don’t want to.
And here’s the kicker– do not say “I told you so”. Well, do your best. We’re all human. (Guilty. SO guilty.) Your adult child will be very grateful if you can stay quiet about how right you were.
A big part of the job of being 20-something is NOT learning how to avoid mistakes, but learning how to recover after making those mistakes. Don’t try to deprive your young adult from learning this extremely important task.
4. Don’t Get Hangry.
Moving is hard work, and can be all-consuming. Plan for some nourishing meals. Set an alarm on your phone to order out or start cooking– before you get to that point where you get snappy with each other. This is not my strong point, but every time I help one of my adult children move I am reminded how important this is.
Hayley and I both got pretty hangry on one of our long driving days, and ended up driving circles around our AirB&B in Pittsburgh so many times that when we finally found it and tried to park the car it took us about 20 minutes to wedge the car into the small space in front of the house. We were simply incapable of the smallest task at that point. Fortunately, we realized what was going on after about 10 minutes and just started laughing about the whole thing and found something to eat.
4 ½. Get Some Zzz's
When moving to a new place, or even just starting classes again in the same place, it can be difficult to get to bed at a reasonable hour. There are time-zone differences, homework, maybe a new job, and not wanting to miss out on socializing with new friends.
Things can easily pile up. Suddenly it’s 10:00 pm and there are still twenty things to finish before bed. Do your best to get enough sleep (and encourage your young adult to get enough sleep too!) in the days leading up to the start of school.
Getting enough sleep is the number one thing you can do to be able to regulate your mood.
Another way to say this is, if you are overtired, it will be hard for you or your kid to stay calm and be happy when under any stress. Small stressors will become increasingly difficult to manage, and your back-to-school experience will be much less enjoyable than it might have been.
Set yourself up for success and get some good sleep!
5. Point Out Their Strengths
If your adult child is going back to school– Congratulations! They have demonstrated qualities and skills like perseverance, hopefulness, curiosity, planning, and communication. Be sure to notice and point out specific examples of these during this back-to-school period, when young adults are especially susceptible to self-doubt. Remind them that they are capable both of getting things done well and of figuring out what to do when things don’t go according to plan. Again, be sure to point out specific examples of things they are doing, or have done well.
If you ever find yourself wishing you lived 200 years ago, when childhood wasn’t even a “thing” (let alone “young adulthood”!), let me just say one thing– indoor plumbing. But seriously.
Our job as parents sometimes seems to extend much longer than we had ever thought it would. This is mostly a good thing. The important thing is to stay emotionally connected to the young adults in your life. As they grow and mature, your relationship will change, and the kind of support you give them will change as well. In their 20’s and early 30’s they need you to help them remember their strengths when they question themselves, show them how to take a break when they get overwhelmed, and let them know that you are confident they can make good decisions most of the time.
Parenting is not for the faint-of-heart, but if your young adult child still cares about your opinion and would like your help and advice, then you’re doing something right!
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Your role as a parent changes as your child grows and matures. Your ideas about parenting also change and mature! If you could use a little more support in your journey of parenting, or if you would like know more about how therapy can help you define your own values and life goals as your family structure morphs into something new and different, please give me a call at 323-999-1537 or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org for a free 20 minute phone consultation.