Helping Teens Transition into Adulthood

If you have a high school senior at home, you already know that the year ahead will be one of big transitions for your whole family.  Yshai Boussi, a Licensed Professional Counselor specializing in Adolescents and Couples, joined us with some important advice. 

For more information, check out Yshai Boussi's blog.

There isn’t a more significant time in the life of a teen than their senior year of high school. This period typically marks the beginning of a major transition that affects everyone in the family. Teens and parents are generally filled with some combination of excitement, anticipation, stress, fear and sadness. Younger siblings are impacted as well as they begin to imagine their life at home without their older sibling around.

It can be tough as a parent of a senior to know what to do under these circumstance. Should they be treated as adults or kids? Should there still be rules or should I back off? Should I ask them about their feelings or will that just make them more stressed? There aren’t easy answers to these questions. It’s always important to consider the unique personality of your child, yourself and your family. What works for one family or teen may not work for the next. We hope that the suggestions here will help you sort out some of these questions, relish the time you have left with your senior and set you and your child up for a successful transition after high school.

1. Accept your limitations. There’s only so much you can do at this point. You don’t have control or influence over their behavior, values or decision making the way you once did. Your teen is naturally starting to separate from the family and be their own person. They have to be allowed to be independent and make mistakes knowing they still may need to fall back on you for support.

2. Help your child practice independence/being an adult. Responsibilities and conversations should have a tone that is more peer to peer than parent to child. Make sure your teen knows at least the basics of money management, how to access resources for themselves (scheduling doctors appointments, filling prescriptions, shopping for food and the basics of cooking etc.). This does not mean that your teen can do whatever they want because they have turned 18, rather, your relationship should be shifting from one of parental authority to one of acting based on consideration, guidance and mutual respect. 

3. Talk about your pride and your sadness. Older teens appreciate seeing their parents express primary emotions like sadness. Focus on your child’s growth, what you’re proud of in your child and how those qualities will be an asset to them as an adult. Don’t try to hide your sadness about your teen leaving home, just be careful not to rely on your teen for emotional support as you go through this transition. 

4. Make sure they know they still matter while they’re gone. It’s easy to buy into the myth that your teen can’t wait to get out of the house and many teens believe this is how they should feel as well. While they may be ready to move out, they need to know that they will be missed and that they are as important as ever to the family. It’s important to make sure you talk about how you will maintain your relationship through phone calls, e-mail, college/home visits or new family traditions (ex: planning a weekly family dinner for a teen who is moving out but staying in the Portland area).

5. Create lots of opportunities to talk about the future.  Talking about the next steps is easy for some kids and full of anxiety for others. Plan on frequent brief conversations about your feelings and hopes for the next year with your child. Being brief is important because your teen will tune you out if they suspect a lecture or motivational speech coming on.

6. Your relationship isn’t ending, it’s evolving.  Forming an adult relationship with your child can be a wonderful shift but it takes work and time. This can be very freeing as you are able to be more of your authentic self around your teen and allow them to see you more as a person. This is a process that takes years and works best when you can talk with your teen about your feelings and expectations. You may be surprised to find your teen opening up to you more about personal things, and over time, relate to you more as a friend. All this can bring a positive new dimension to both of your lives.

7. If your teen is staying home after high school focus on empowering them. In these cases, they’re typically not quite ready to leave home and that’s OK. It’s important to help these teens grow and develop the skills they are lacking without them feeling any more shamed or insecure than they probably already do. Going off to college is not the right path for everyone.  Help your child figure out the right path for them, learn the skills they need for independence and show pride that they are figuring out their own way.

8. Give space for their ambivalence. They can’t wait to get out of the house but they’re nervous about being on their own and will miss being a part of family activities. Both are true and that’s normal. Teens at this stage are a lot like toddlers, venturing out on their own and demanding independence one minute and then seeking support, love and structure the next. 

9. Don’t compare. All teens are going to handle this period differently. It may seem like your teens best friend has everything together and your child is far behind, but in reality you don’t know all of the details of that child’s life. Their parents could feel exactly the same way. Focus on your child without comparing him or her to the other kids in your social circle. 

10. Support younger siblings. The entire family structure will be changing soon and younger siblings are often impacted most of all. Many younger siblings are fearful of losing their friend, confidant and source of support. It’s important not to minimize this relationship. Most siblings have a connection that goes beyond what you see as a parent. Make sure they have opportunities to stay connected.

Whether your child is getting ready to head off to an Ivy League school, is staying home to attend community college or still hasn’t quite figured out what to do next, you have a lot to be proud of as a parent. You’ve worked really hard over the past 18 years. The journey isn’t about to end but it will be taking a significant turn. This transition is fraught with opportunities to learn and grow for everyone. We hope you and your teen are able to enjoy and appreciate one another during these next few months and beyond.

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