After surviving the whirlwind of final exams, proms, and commencement exercises, parents of new high school graduates can find themselves wondering how to successfully navigate that final summer before their children enter the “real world”—whether that’s attending college, joining the military, or working full-time.
Marriage and family therapist Hal Runkel says parents and teens can use this two to three month period to start shifting the nature of their interactions, a move that can help set the foundation for positive, long-term relationships as adults.
“The biggest mistake parents make is that they want to hang on to the old way of doing things day to day,” Runkel says.
“Begin treating them like the adults they’re becoming, not the kids they’ve been.”
Runkel, the author of ScreamFree Parenting, says this process can start when parents give emerging adults the freedom to start making choices, such as determining how long they plan to stay out with friends without the limits of a curfew. Runkel used this approach with his oldest daughter, Hannah, the summer before college, and is doing the same with his youngest child, Brandon, who heads to college in a few weeks.
When Hannah told her parents she planned to go out, they responded with the directive, “Just let us know when to expect you home.”
It might sound terrifying, but Runkel reminds worried parents that within a few months or even weeks, their children will be making that decision on their own every day. This isn’t the time to institute last-minute rules or “teaching moments,” he says.
“You don’t know what they’re doing day in and day out when they’re in college,” Runkel says. “It was up to her to determine how she’d live her life.”
A level of trust is needed on both sides, Runkel says.
Parents must trust the foundation they’ve built throughout the teen years that their children will be ready to make smart decisions and communicate about their choices.
Runkel found that with Hannah, the freedom was harder on her initially than it was for him and his wife, as Hannah had to decide for herself what choice was best, not simply rely on her parents to determine that for her. If given that level of freedom, older teens might come voluntarily to their parents for more help and input during this period, he says. But he warns parents not to freak out if they bring up sensitive or difficult issues.
“A freak out episode or taking things personally will cause them to push back,” Runkel says. “Don’t lecture them and don’t expect perfection and then believe they should be grateful that you’re helping them. You might have made your point, but they’re not likely to come back for more input.”
Runkel has a few other suggestions about how to spend the transition period between high school and college.
How to Shift the Relationship from Teenager to Young Adult:
1. Make sure teens stay engaged.
2. Teach your children about money management.
Runkel suggests working together to create a spreadsheet of likely expenses and then discussing how teens can contribute to their college education. “I wholeheartedly believe every college student should have some skin in the game in terms of paying for college, even if it’s just supplying (their) own spending money,” Runkel says.
3. Talk to your friends with college kids.
Ask for help and advice from non-family members who have kids of similar age about how they’re managing this stage. Invite them to dinner and just chat. “It’s been an invaluable practice for us,” Runkel says.
4. Savor this time.
Above all, treasure these final few weeks of childhood, he says. College years can feel like they pass faster than the high school years, and when your child returns home for the first time—whether during a fall break, Thanksgiving or another holiday—you’ll notice the difference in their behavior after a few months of independence.
“This is a time to show you believe in your kids,” Runkel said. “Believe in the job you’ve done thus far. Trust it.”