Like many of you, my past month has been filled with the G word. Graduation. My oldest child has finished high school. That rite of passage has been achieved, and the summer ahead of us will be shadowed by knowing she’s leaving soon. Actually, this month has brought us a couple of milestones: not only did my daughter graduate, but my son also got his drivers license — and I got rid of my minivan! Lucky for me, the youngest is holding steady in middle school for another year.
With these changes come many emotions, often unexpectedly. At any given moment, I’ve felt everything from excitement to worry, from sadness to anticipation, and all the other wonderful ups and downs that parents feel. From talking to other parents, I’ve discovered that all of these emotions are actually common. I’m not alone. And, if your child has just graduated, know that you’re not alone, either. Graduations bring change, and any time there’s change, there’s uncertainty, which can evoke a range of emotions. Try to notice what you’re thinking and feeling in any given moment, and remember that this, too, shall pass.
To stay grounded as these waves of emotion lap over me, I’ve found the following to be extremely helpful:
- Stay present. When I’m not in the present moment, I’m generally spinning in my head or on auto-pilot. In both cases, it means I’m reacting instead of responding to whatever is in front of me. (Responding is generally intentional, and reacting is generally driven by emotions and impulses.) Making sure my phone is away when I’m with people, only using social media for work purposes and turning it off earlier also have helped me tune in to whatever, or whoever, is in front of me.
- Remember “feelings are not facts” and “just because I’m thinking something doesn’t mean it’s true.” It helps to remember that my daughter is also starting her separation process, and while certain actions may feel personal, I shouldn’t take them personally. For instance, when she doesn’t want to spend time at home, I don’t need to wallow in self-pity (or if I do, I need to get out of it quickly).
- Try to be an observer of your emotions. This one’s hard, for sure, but when I can remember that emotions are just feelings and sensations, my anxiety lessens. I have to remind myself that there’s no grand meaning behind them (unless I assign one), and behavior doesn’t need to be directed by them (unless I choose it). Nothing is wrong, per se. I’m just feeling — and that, as I’ve already said, is normal.
- Seek support. Having people in my life who can listen without judgement or unsolicited advice is a gift. We must use it.
- Practice listening to (not problem-solving for) someone else. A great way to get out of myself is to focus on someone else. I have to practice really listening to the other person without thinking of what I’m going to ask next, how I could solve the issue differently, what I’m going to do when I get home, etc. When my mind wanders back to my stuff, I gently bring it back to the other person. This is hard work when I really do it, but it makes such a difference to feel heard.
What we, as parents, are feeling and thinking is likely very different from how our kids are thinking and feeling. It’s important not to assume you know what this period is like for them. Take the time and ask, and make sure you’re really listening to them. Whatever your graduate’s plans are, they are probably feeling some anxiety. There’s always the worry of failure, whether they’re entering the workforce, heading off to college, or entering the service. If they don’t have plans, they may be worried about their own next steps. Even though your child may legally be an adult, keep in mind that this is likely their biggest transition to date — and they’re only 18.
The best thing parents can do is take care of our own emotions first. That way, we can better respond to our child. The worst-case scenario is two scared people reacting out of fear. If there are other issues at hand, this might be a good time to check in with a therapist. Even if you’ve sought help in the past, new situations may need new coping skills. And sometimes, as I said in the beginning, it just helps to have someone remind us that our feelings are normal and that we’re not alone.