April isn’t the cruelest month – it’s January, deadline time for college applications. While college transition fever first strikes between junior SAT’s and senior September, it peaks once the bids for admission are in the mail. Suddenly the realization that a big change is coming hits both generations. “Senioritis” replaces the flu as winter’s main teenage malady. Kids space out or ignore their homework assignments, term papers and exams; even if their grades don’t slide, their attitude often changes in a nanosecond from cool, distant and disaffected to demanding, dependent, or defiant. And parents, especially if they’ve been intensely involved in (or afflicted by) the application process, are wondering who these strangers are and what happened to the almost-adults their kids were just beginning to become.
What’s a parent to do? Here’s a strategy from “Ready to Launch: Parenting Through the College Transition,” a new on-line program I created for www.pricelessparenting: Tighten Up While Loosening Up. Tightening up means being vigilant about their academics and letting them know you mean it. Post a January-June calendar in plain sight and circle all deadlines for papers, reports, midterms and finals as well as senior activities like proms, picnics, class trips and graduation parties. Tie their academic performance to giving permission and/or money for those activities. Remind them that colleges will get their final grades and even (mis)conduct reports, which might jeopardize their enrollment even if they’ve been accepted or influence what courses they’re allowed to take when they get there.
Loosening up means putting them in charge of themselves – allowing them more personal freedom and autonomy in other aspects of their lives. If you haven’t yet left them at home alone for more than an evening, take yourself somewhere else for a few days and see how they manage. Let them set their own curfews and alarm clocks and handle their own money, whether you provide an allowance or they earn it. Allow them to manage their own time, relationships, and social life. Invite them to participate in family activities; don’t include them without their consent (which means that they, not you, get to tell Grandma they’re not coming to her birthday party.) Ask, don’t tell, especially when it comes to giving advice; before offering it,request their permission, which may feel strange the first time they say No, thanks and you have to manually put your lips together to keep from giving it anyway. Let them make their own mistakes (they will anyway) because that’s the only way they’ll know better next time.
Meanwhile, what can you do to ease your own symptoms of transition fever, like Future Nostalgia? That’s that achy sense that all this will soon be over, and while in some ways you can’t wait, in others you’d just like to freeze this moment in time. Well, maybe not this one, when they’re shutting you out with a teenager’s withering coolness; instead, focus but one you can remember as if it happened yesterday ( which it probably did). Concentrate on that unexpected hug or thank-you, that special something that reminds you how much you love them. And try not to think about how much you’ll miss them when they leave.