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The Launching Years: No Time to Stop Parenting

by Laura Kastner, Ph.D and Jennifer Wyatt, Ph.D.

The launching years correspond roughly to the senior year of high school and the beginning years of college when the majority of American children leave home. These years represent a complicated and vastly overlooked transitional period for young adults and parents alike. As we say in our book on this topic, The Launching Years, "Couples give birth to babies, and everyone knows it's a big deal. And then your 'baby' leaves home. It's also a major developmental hurdle, so why shouldn't a child's senior year be the most chaotic year of your life?"

During senior year, the typical struggles of adolescence about rules, achievement, and teens' social lives can be exacerbated by launch-related dynamics such as senioritis and spoiling the nest. Senioritis can include an academic slump, "blahs" to everything, power surges, and power struggles, while spoiling the nest explains the behavioral friction that precedes a child's departure and eases the difficulty of saying good-bye. On top of these challenges, no matter how bright the future, the anticipation of change, loss, and the disruption of the daily life everyone has known for nearly two decades can create anxiety and emotional volatility. Against this shaky backdrop, parents confront difficult decisions about the next best step for their child's life and their own. Managing all this is both tricky and mind-boggling.

All too often, families succumb to a phenomenon we call launch anxiety. Launch anxiety describes the doubt, insecurity, fretting and narrowed perspective, which are the result of conscious and unconscious feelings about the launching transition and everything that it implies. With no concrete outlet for launch anxiety, many mothers and fathers vigorously pursue the narrow path of the "best" college for their child as "the holy grail" of parenting. Families would do better to keep their eyes on the right prize. A parent's job during the launching years remains the same as it has always been: to nurture qualities that support the development of a resilient, responsible, productive, socially and emotionally competent young person. The good news (for those who aren't quite ready to give up their parenting job) and bad news (for those who are) is that there will be more parenting toward this outcome between ages 18 to 25.

A generation ago, parenting tended to be over for moms and dads once their children reached age 18 and set off on a known path like military service, advanced education, marriage, or a vocation. This approach of cutting loose and letting go does not, however, serve today's families well. Leaving home for college has become a rite of passage for over a third of all U.S. high school graduates, with roughly another third continuing to live at home while pursuing postsecondary education. What this statistic doesn't reveal is the drama of ongoing parenting that occurs as young people struggle with the formidable challenges of college life and entry into the adult world.

Studies show that on average it takes five to ten years for young people to shift fully from their family of origin to their own home base. Some developmental psychologists describe 18- to 25-year olds as "emerging adults," who need support from their parents and can benefit from a close relationship with them. In surveys, 18- to 21-year-olds say that they feel like an adult in some ways but not in others. Not until their mid-20's do they report feeling like an adult. Likewise, young people who perceive their parents as "available" are more resilient than those who categorize themselves as "self-reliant."

As long as college students are straddling the worlds of childhood and adulthood, without their own center of gravity, a hands-off approach by parents is as problematic as the opposite-hovering like a den parent. On top of academic stress and strain, college students may face a range of social problems, from bad roommates to broken hearts to abusive relationships. Parents should calibrate their involvement so that they're encouraging independence, but the more serious the issue, the more inadequate the message to "let go" becomes.

Binge drinking has been identified by surveys from the Harvard School Of Public Health as the top public health problem affecting college students. Alcohol-related crimes, including date rape and vandalism, plague campuses. Each year, 1,400 college students between the ages of 18 to 24 die from alcohol-related unintentional injuries, including motor vehicle crashes. More than 600,000 students are assaulted by another student who has been drinking, and more than 70,000 are victims of alcohol-related sexual assault or date rape. A comprehensive review of current research on adolescent brain development, published in Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Review, suggests a biological basis for adolescent risk taking. Up until the 20's, the brain's frontal lobes--the area responsible for self-control, judgment, and emotional regulation-remain immature, which may factor into some of the lapses in some college students' self-regulation. Until young people are fully mature, parents remain on call.

Colleges report that more students than ever are arriving on campus freshman year already overwhelmed, some because of unstable family situations. The numbers of students suffering from mental health problems are at an all-time high, with counseling referrals for eating disorders, stress disorders, and depression outstripping the resources of most colleges. Whether pertaining to alcohol abuse or mental health issues, problems of this severe a magnitude typically necessitate parent involvement.

Legislation such as the Buckley Amendment of 1974, which restricts information flow between colleges and parents, puts college administrators in a bind about sharing students' problems with parents. Some colleges admit to steering clear of parents out of bad experiences with invasive, micromanaging parents who feel entitled to call the shots because they're footing the tuition bill. Nonetheless, cutting families out of the support system isn't the answer. It needs to be colleges' business to communicate with parents when students are in trouble, rather than hiding behind the cloak of confidentiality and failing to include parents as part of a team.

Avoiding either/or of too little or too much involvement, parents should maintain a connected, trusting relationship with their child during the college years so that they learn about their progress, setbacks, and struggles and can offer them guidance and resources when necessary. Parents can be good consultants in advising their children in ways to pursue their interests, find work-study and employment opportunities, and hone a path toward a career. The art of parenting an emerging adult is to strike the right balance between intervening thoughtfully during true crises and standing aside during mild difficulties so that emerging adults can work through their dilemmas and thereby develop their own competencies.


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About the authors:

Laura Kastner, Ph.D and Jennifer Wyatt, Ph.D are coauthors of The Launching Years: Strategies for Parenting from Senior Year to College Life (Three Rivers Press, 2002).

Visit their Web Site: www.launchingyears.com.


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© December 2002 New Horizons for Learning

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