Senioritis is a common diseasebut it's rarely fatal." Those words of wisdom were delivered with a chuckle from a friend who happens to be a high school counselor. I'd dropped by her office to chat and she was waxing eloquent about symptoms of senioritis, which include irritability, irresponsibility and lack of enthusiasm.
"The afflicted are not easy to love, yet they greatly need our love and understanding," my friend continued. "Though their behavior may seem like the problem, it's only a symptom. The real problem is their fear of growing up, facing changes, and the impending loss of childhood."
Fear of facing changes and impending lossessounds a lot like the emotions of midlife, I mused.
No doubt about it. Teenagers feel confused as they make the transition between childhood and adulthood. They look forward to finishing high school, but they also feel frightened. Graduation marks the official end of childhood and will end the structured, predictable way of life they've always known. Graduation means facing a future that looks exciting but also feels insecure. As they get closer to graduation, our teenagers may act out their fears in various forms of negative behavior that they don't even understand.
How can we help them through this transition? First, we can think about growing up from their point of view, remembering our own feelings and fears during adolescence. Doing so will increase our patience and understanding of their negative or moody behavior. Second, we can encourage them to recognize, acknowledge and grieve their impending losses.
What will they lose?
My conversation with my friend challenged me to consider the losses a senior faces. There's the loss of childhood, which means the loss of protection, innocence and a relatively carefree way of life. There's the loss of security and predictability within the context of a familiar life pattern, and there's the loss of place within the family (being the older brother or oldest child).
There's the physical loss of home, which includes the loss of a bedroom and its privacy, the loss of access to a car, and the loss of a refrigerator and cupboard stocked by someone else.
There's the loss of a high school class that for four years carefully wove itself together through shared experiences like football victories, grief over the death of a classmate in a car accident, and the common responses to the quirks of a principal or popular teacher. Seniors also face the loss of their circle of friendsand their place within that strongly bonded group. They will miss the comfort of knowing and being known, and face great grief in losing their sense of belonging. There's even the loss of accountability and guidance as the senior begins to cope with this fact: "The person in charge of me is me!"
So we shouldn't be surprised when our seniors act out their mixed-up feelings in confusing ways. From their viewpoint, their carefully constructed world is crumbling apart. During the spring before graduation, my son Derek seemed like a sleep-and-eat machine, silently moving through the house as if he needed to detach himself from personal involvement. Other times, he lingered at the kitchen counter as if he wanted to talk. I wanted to help him talk about his feelings, so I asked some unthreatening questions.
"Are you scared when you think about leaving your friends and moving out of your room here?" I asked. "What's the best part of being a senior? What's the hardest part?"
"The best part about being a senior is knowing I'm almost done with high school," he said, "but that's also the hardest part." He told me about driving home from school and hearing a song that reminds him of autumn. He'd suddenly realized how totally different and unfamiliar the next fall would feel. "I got this pain in my stomach and thought I'd have to pull over because I felt sick," he said.
Understanding Their Feelings
How do adolescents act out those confusing push-pull feelings? Some get lazy and quit doing homework or start cutting classes. Now that their college applications are completed, they decide to take it easy. High school counselors believe some seniors even subconsciously sabotage their ability to graduate by cutting classes and avoiding homework, because failure will bring a last-minute reprieve from the challenge of moving on and facing the losses graduation brings.
Other seniors head to the counseling office for help in resolving issues with friends or parents. They want to deal with unfinished business before it's too late.
Some seem irritable or sullenly silent, especially at home. Though they can't define or admit it, this behavior often covers up their fear of impending loss. The honest message is, "It will be easier for me to leave this family if I act like I don't like you."
Parents can help teenagers through this difficult transition by encouraging them to identify and acknowledge their feelings whenever possible. After I started asking those questions about fears, my kids and I began talking about their normal feelings and responses. We identified and even named the silences and periods of irritability using the code words "detach mode" and "senior syndrome." This small gesture said, "Together we can understand these feelings." I know, those names sound a little weird. But giving names to feelingswhatever you call themtakes some of the mystery out of them. It can make them a bit more "objective" and easier to deal with.
Parents also can help by responding with patience and not taking adolescents' negative behavior personally. We shouldn't assume their moody silences mean they don't like us. Usually, the opposite is truethey love us dearlybut they just don't know how to cope with their fears about leaving home, so they may try to withdraw emotionally.
Changes for You
The irony is that we parents face similar losses as our seniors prepare to leave home. We fear their leaving will forever change the family structure, our definitions of ourselves, and our parental job descriptions. The anticipation of their leaving often coincides withor precipitatesthe feelings connected with midlife changes. We, too, face an uncertain future.
When these separate but similar fears about losses meet on the same stage, one of two things can happen. We can have honest, openhearted discussions, or heated exchanges of angry words that we don't meanand regret later. The openhearted discussions are more likely to happen when we parents can understand our feelings. And that begins for us just as it does for themwith a better look at our anticipated losses.
Here are some of the losses I faced when my children left for college:
Loss of being needed. In some ways, there's a liberation associated with this loss, but a nostalgic part of me remembers how nice it felt to be needed. My face used to be the only one that could stop my child's crying in the church nursery, but now that same child calls her friend when she wants comfort and understanding. She doesn't need me to fix her moods anymore, but I still relish those brief moments when I'm needed, like when she doesn't feel good and crawls into our bed in the middle of the afternoon.
Loss of identity. We define ourselves by titlesmother, daughter, wife, sister, accountant, doctorbecause most titles also carry built-in job descriptions. As our children leave home, Mother means something different than it meant when they were little. I no longer tell the barber how to cut my son's hair. My daughter doesn't ask my permission to visit a friend. I've lost the role of being in charge.
I also faced related losses, like the loss of involvement in my kids' activities and connection to their friends. The teenagers who watched movies in our family room and raided our refrigerator no longer show up or call. That may sound liberating, but I named it as a loss, too. I genuinely care about those kids and their lives.
Loss of clear priorities. Family was my top priority for 20 years. Part of me looked forward to moving on, but the past also held me powerfully in its grip. Will I ever feel that fulfilled again? I wondered. Will the next chapter of my life bring that same kind of joy? How much of who I am is tangled up with who they are? I wondered who I'd be on the other side of this transition.
A Solution in the Struggle
One Saturday morning during my daughter Lindsay's senior year, she sat at the kitchen counter, staring at three college applications. She had filled out the specific information, like class rank, but she was stuck on the essay section, where the creative answers are supposed to help the school decide if the applicant is right for their school.
"I can't do this!" she wailed as she dropped her pencil on the stack of forms. "I'm supposed to tell them who I am and what I want to become, and I don't know!" Her eyes filled with tears and she looked at me pleadingly.
I cringed in sympathy as I realized how closely my feelings matched hers. But as I observed how Lindsay handled her situation, I learned a way of coping with my own uncertainty.
A couple of weeks and many hard-working sessions later, Lindsay completed her applications. She appeared almost transformed by the process. I assumed her new confidence came from the relief of finishing the project. But when I read one of her cover letters, I discovered a different reason.
"Thank you for the opportunity to answer these tough questions," she wrote. "They helped me reach a clearer definition of myself."
I stared at those words, again learning a lesson in parenting that I keep forgetting. I'd wanted to protect Lindsay from the struggle of coming up with those answers, but she found strength in the struggle. She also discovered a solution in the struggle. She had to dig into her past and identify the threads of her personality that helped her clarify her hopes for the future.
Lindsay's lack of confidence came partly from her lack of a clear answer to the "Who am I?" question. But when she took the time to examine her past, she found specific examples that helped her form some answers and feel more secure about her future.
The same holds true for me. In facing my insecurities or confusion about entering a different season, I must do more than merely ask the question, "Who do I want to be on the other side of this transition?" Like Lindsay, I have to identify the passions in my past that will help clarify what I want to do with my future.
Finding the Middle Ground
It's amazing what my child's own transition into adulthood has taught me about myself, and about how to handle my own transition into midlife. While we all want to help our child through these changes, we also need to see this as a time for personal growth and development as well.
But recognizing change is only the beginning. Growing through the change takes a willingness to change, says Ellen Goodman in her book, Turning Points. To help flesh this out, Goodman puts people in transition into three categories: "change resisters," "change innovators" and "middle grounders." During times of transition and instability, all three types of people are faced with the possibility of losing their sense of meaning and purpose.
To keep their sense of meaning and purpose intact, change resisters avoid change at all costs. They see change as threatening rather than hopeful or exciting. They value safety and sameness and hold on to traditions and patterns of the past. Being stuck in the past keeps them from seeing the potential in the future.
I've known parents like that in midlife. They don't let go of the way things were, and their grown children don't want to visit them because they're still treated like children.
I fear I could become a parent like that unless I'm willing to change.
Change innovators, on the other hand, leap into radical change, denying the importance of any traditions or commitments. They often take dramatic shortcuts into the future, determined to make a fresh start to a new way of life. I've also known people like that at midlife; they've suddenly "had enough" and walk out on their marriages or families, leaving broken people and relationships in their wake.
Fortunately, there are well-balanced "middle grounders." These are the folks who are willing to change but in a timely way, and in a way that considers the needs and circumstances of loved ones. Middle grounders keep the traditional values of the past while looking forward to the change and growth of the future.
Willingness to change means embracing life's transitions. The Bible is filled with examples of people who turned their faces toward change rather than away. I think of Sarah, who willingly gave up the comforts and security of the known (her home and country) for the unknown (traveling around and heading for Canaan with Abraham).
I also think of Ruth, who willingly let go of her past and followed her mother-in-law, Naomi, from Moab, Ruth's homeland, back to Naomi's homeland in Israel.
Mary, the mother of Jesus, showed a trusting willingness to change when she received a visit from the angel Gabriel, who told her she carried the Son of God in her womb. God rewarded each of these people for their willingness to change.
In addition to willingness to change, we must prepare for change. Just as the student's graduation leads to a time of change and growth, our "empty-nester" season is also a time that requires our preparation for the future.
There are many ways to prepare for the change. I know several men and women who went back to school part-time and paced their classes so that graduation coincided with the high school graduations of their youngest children. In their first few years without kids at home, they were absorbed with new jobs. Others seek the help of career counselors in clarifying their choices and making decisions as their children go off to grade school or junior high.
Parents may feel more freedom as their children grow up and leave, but they may have less flexibility, because their financial burdens increase as those children enter college. That need becomes part of the planning and preparation process as well.
We can use this transitional time of our lives and the lives of our children to create a sense of anticipation for what will come. It's a time when we look toward a transition with openness to its possibilities. It's a time when we gather up the best parts of our past and discover the patterns and passions that point us toward the future. Then, with courage, we march toward our child's commencementa word that means "beginning."
Carol is the author of several books on parenting. She and her husband, Lynn, have three adult children.