Wendy Mogel, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist and a New York Times bestselling author. Her most recent book is Voice Lessons for Parents. She shared her insights about all of the loss that high school and college seniors are experiencing and advice about the best way for parents to support them.
Edited transcript or complete video interview (19:24) with Wendy Mogel, Ph.D.
Q: What should we say to our seniors that might be helpful?
Mogel: From the time high school seniors could first talk and listen, they have been hearing conversations about college and that particular rite of passage and it’s been so built up and inflated and filled with steroids of joy. And then suddenly this was taken away from them. And two things are happening in people’s homes. The kid are incredibly annoyed by their parents, and at that same time, they’re feeling so glad to be with their mommy and daddy. They think, “I was kind of afraid to leave home and go away, even though I was so excited about the freedom.” They look at the world around them and blame you. If you take it personally or if you try to fix this, you are going to get increasingly frustrated and beat yourself up about not being able to solve things for them.
Q: Are the college seniors feeling similar to the high school seniors?
Mogel: College kids are in a whole different space. They have built a life in another place, and they had an abrupt ending. Life as they knew it got taken away. Similar to high school kids, they were also filled with both nostalgia and trepidation because they’re leaving their college buddies and they’re moving out into an unfamiliar world that is much less predictable than it was for any of us.
So, again, they are filled with happy anticipation and plenty of anxiety. And then that gets taken away as well. They get sent back to the penitentiary that also has in it all of their old stuffed animals that their parents never threw away. And well-intentioned parents try to tell them that they have so many other things to look forward to, but our kids don’t have the capacity for a longer view yet because they haven’t lived very long yet.
Q; So I guess we shouldn’t expect to hear our college seniors tell us that they’re happy to be home?
Mogel: No, you won’t. In fact, adolescents and young adults treat the people—their parents—that they love and trust the most the worst. It still doesn’t hurt to offer the kind of guidance that you’re offering. For example, “At least we’re all healthy,” or “At least we’re here together and we have a house to live in and we have food and no one is ill.” They have to pretend they don’t hear that, but they do. The last thing that we can expect from them is for them to say, “Oh, Mother, thank you so much for your sage wisdom. This is a whole new way to frame this problem and I hadn’t considered it. And if I didn’t have the privilege of a person like you offering me guidance, I don’t know what I do.”
Q: Our teenagers are upset and we are super stressed. How can we have a peaceful house?
Mogel: This is really, really hard and it’s completely unfamiliar territory. And this is also a rite of passage into a completely different style of living than any of us have ever experienced. There is a lot of bickering between the parents and their kids because parents want to spare the child from their frustration. We really want to run our homes like a cross between a business and a military boot camp right now. Everybody has jobs to do. There are rules of engagement. There’s a certain kind of etiquette that will make things go smoothly.
Adolescents and young adults know how to gather a posse around them. The whole web is their world right now. We’re still figuring out how to have a Zoom happy hour or an extended family Zoom Shabbat candle lighting. But some of us don’t know what we are doing. Technically, they know how to do that. You don’t have to be the source of comfort perspective and even soothing because the more you wish to do that, the more you’re setting yourself up for battles that range from bickering to really loud shouting.
We really want to be in the moment of each day. Because it’s springtime and there are tulips. And here in Southern California, we don’t have tulips, but the roses just came out in my garden and I’m really trying to appreciate those roses at the same time.
Q: Is there anything helpful about trying to reframe prom for kids and say, “I know you’ve been looking forward to this, but ask a bunch of people who went last year how fun it was” so they can see that it’s not the greatest night of their lives?
Mogel: That’s kind of a cross between a publicist and a CIA agent. You’re trying to sell the idea that prom’s not so happy, so they shouldn’t be so disappointed. And the CIA agent says, “I have some intel.” I think that the chapter about teenagers in the book is called Spirit Guides in Disguise. And when I talk about teenage boys, I say treat them as though they are an exchange student from Kazakhstan. You’re very interested in the ways of this different culture and you are interested in being educated about it.
And for the girls, it’s as if you’re visiting a niece from a distance state. She’s the daughter of your least favorite sister. You don’t care about her that much. This way you insert some distance so you don’t feel like you have to save them from their deep emotions. In this role, you’re captivated. You’re enchanted. You’re curious and you’re naive. And that’s your approach towards their wonderful creativity and ballast for keeping the ship from sinking. You become an observer, an appreciative observer, rather than a problem solver.
Q: Do you think that our kids are navigating these losses better than we are as parents because ours is double-layered: We see it through the eyes of our kids who are feeling a loss and we also feel a loss.
Mogel: I entirely agree with you. They deal with most things better than we do, although we are so tuned in to their missteps. And one of your other guests on this series said it so beautifully, she said they are not what they are going to turn out to be. But what we do is we mistake a snapshot for the epic movie of their lives. So we look at every moment and say, “Oh, this is the character of my child or this is the kind of person I raised.” And we judge ourselves.
I talk to parents a lot about their own separation anxiety when their children go off to college. And it’s often unconscious. Then I see them with tracking devices. And I always think of parolees with ankle bracelets. So we know when our college freshmen took a breath or then didn’t take a breath. It’s like the new baby monitors that tell you what your child’s body temperature is when you’re out to dinner.
And so this letting go was going to be marked by a glorious ceremony or party, which is one of the beautiful things that we have in our in our culture. We have traditions and parents are grieving that this tradition has been taken away from them. And the kids in the meantime are figuring out some very inventive way to create a substitute that you will be able to either look at in a video or even participate in.
Q: Any final words of advice?
Mogel: It’s extremely important to take care of ourselves right now and everyone is saying this and it’s just become a kind of shallow platitude, but it’s vital. And that means getting away from these people you’re locked up with. It may mean telling somebody who wants to run or walk with you that you need to go on that walk by yourself. Or saying you need some time to watch something that is your low-level pleasure on TV without the group. And we need to figure out how to make space within the cloister and also at the same time to be deeply grateful for the shelter that we have.