The last month of high school is busy. There’s prom, projects, finals, college acceptance letters, decisions about summer jobs, discussions about what’s next, and let’s not forget—the tears. Then there’s graduation. Sometimes it feels as though when kids graduate high school, parents should graduate from parenting. To some, that might feel like a relief. For others, it may bring some sadness. So, what types of parenting do your emerging adults need?
It’s great for parents to recognize that what got them through the child-raising years won’t always get them through the adult years. The relationship changes, and parents can become more of a friend and companion than a director or commander. This can be a difficult adjustment. Parents spend 18 years providing direction, guardrails, discipline, and encouragement to help their kids be successful. At times, some might admit they hovered a little too much. It can be challenging to let go of what has, for some, become a major part of their identity—Madison’s mom, the twins’ dad, Hunter’s parents, etc.
A parent doesn’t stop being a parent, things just change. So how do parents move from the discipline, training, and coaching years into the friend years? What is most important as they lead their kids out the proverbial door, and what adjustments should a parent make in order to move into the next season of supporting their child?
Something to keep in mind is that the relationship you have with your emerging adult matters more than their behaviors. Young people will make mistakes, not take the job that seemed right, miss a deadline for a college entry essay, and even potentially give in to a temptation that back in high school, they never would have.
As a parent, this can cause feelings of failure or guilt. But the key is that when a young person has stumbled down that road, they need to have a solid relationship with their parents and other caring people in their lives to go to for advice, direction, and perspective. The priority at every stage of a child’s development is for them to know that they are loved, heard, valued, accepted and cared for. This doesn’t change as they enter adulthood.
Here are some tips that should help shift the types of parenting needed to navigate graduation and the season following.
1. Let it out.
This is an emotional time as a parent. Crying, looking through old photo albums, reminiscing, viewing family videos, and staring at your sleeping teenager the night before graduation and shedding a few tears over it are all very normal and appropriate things for this changing season. Take advantage of all of the opportunities to walk down memory lane and reflect on the last 18 years. Closing the door on that chapter is healing and helps open the door to what’s next. Keep in mind, most kids are very excited for this season to arrive. However, for parents, it can be a mixed bag of emotions.
2. Let it go.
Most parents spend a lot of time in the high school years providing assistance to their teenager. Often, assistance looks like rescuing. Filling out forms, helping with homework, providing four wake-up knocks on the bedroom door before school, making appointments with the admissions office at the university, calling to get details about the internship, and reading all the fine print so their child doesn’t have to—all are pretty normal examples of rescuing. Parents do these things because they want their kids to be successful and to move on to the next steps of adulting, but they are terrified their kid will miss the deadline or sleep through an alarm, so they rescue.
At this stage, parents have to let it go. This is incredibly difficult. Parents must allow their kids to take responsibility for themselves. Actually, it works best when they have been empowered and expected to do some of these kinds of things for themselves all through their senior year.
This stage is when parents hear their kids say things like “I’m 18. I’m an adult.” And the parent argues back, “You don’t pay for anything, or make your own doctor’s appointments … you can’t even get yourself up in the morning!” The first step for a young person to be successful in taking responsibility is by being released to succeed—or fail.
As long as a parent is rescuing, the child will never feel the natural consequences of dropping the ball. Parents want their children to be independent, but first, they must give them independence. It’s a circle that can be challenging to understand where to enter. A deadline may get missed and there will be natural consequences. At this stage, the parent doesn’t need to punish their young adult. Nature has taken its course. The natural consequences are far more effective at correcting than a parent coming in and saying, “I told you you were going to miss it!”
The temptation to then rescue the situation will be strong. No parent wants to see their child suffer even an appropriate consequence. But you must resist. When you do, you can start stepping aside and embracing your new coaching role. From there, you’ll even have space to be sympathetic and provide encouragement.
As an added bonus, the pressure starts to lift during this phase. Parents will no longer feel the burden of all of the responsibilities that belong to the child. This unfolds over a few years. Eventually, the young adult will seek out their parents’ advice, opinions, and perspectives instead of the parent imposing those onto their child—only to have them rejected.
3. Prepare for it.
If it didn’t happen before graduation, it will likely happen sometime after—with the new freedom from high school, your emerging adults are more likely to make decisions you might not like. They may apply for a credit card, plan a parent-free roadtrip to a music festival out of state, or even quit a job without any prospects for a new one. They may share a lack of belief in God, or a lost interest in church or activities with the family.
Parents should prepare for a conversation like this. The knee-jerk reaction may be hurt or anger followed by things like, “What? Are you out of your mind? You’re not going to Colorado for a music festival without any adults!” or “Oh, as long as you live in this house, you’re going to church!” This will certainly lead to an argument. Instead, ask questions. Seek understanding about where they are coming from and why they made the decision. Ensure the lines of communication are open through the strength of the relationship. Then, boldly share perspective that they desperately need. Kids still need their parents. This is not a warm and fuzzy approach to parenting—in fact, just the opposite and why the fourth tip is incredibly important.
4. Set ground rules.
This should probably be number one. For there to be some semblance of order in a home, there should be standards of honor and respect for one another. A curfew, responsibilities around the house, and expectations related to spending and earning are all things the parent and young person should land on. Just like the young adult will experience when living in a dorm, sharing an apartment with friends and eventually a spouse, establishing how to honor and respect one another through norms are very appropriate and necessary. This process of establishing these norms is important to the young person’s growth and maturity.
Navigating the post-graduation season is sad and exciting all at the same time. Summer should be full of opportunities to make memories and share meaningful experiences. Continue as much as possible to do the things that have become normal and routine, like attending church and serving together as a family, reading YouVersion Bible Plans together, cooking meals, camping out, and playing games. Families can also begin to shift to the new normal that comes during or after the summer. Don’t let the new season just happen. Be intentional and stay connected. Kids need their parents as much now as they ever did—they just may not realize it.