Parent of a senior? Me too and I feel you.

This is my second go around on this ride so blithely referred to as “Senior Year” and while I can’t claim expertise, I am painfully aware that this final spin can take all the parenting grit one can muster.

It feels like just yesterday when the women behind me in line at Target commented, “Someday you’ll miss this,” as I dug through my diaper bag searching for my wallet while balancing my hungry and nap ready baby on my hip and explaining to my despondent two year old that I couldn’t read the book she had picked out right now, all while needing to pee.

I so wanted to punch that woman.

And yet here I am, eighteen years later uttering those exact words to every young parent I see, disconcertingly having become the woman I wanted to punch.

As I face my second and youngest child’s senior year I am by all accounts a sentimental fool as the tangle of parenting memories, no matter where they fall on the emotional spectrum, evokes a wistful smile and sense of nostalgia.

Yet, I am also aware that it is the retrospect that evokes those smiles since each year has had its unique joys, challenges and brew of feelings. My limited experience is that this year is no different.

When my children were little I found a series of books, written by Dr. Louis Bates Ames, extremely timely and helpful:

  • Your One Year Old: Fun-Loving and Fussy
  • Your Two Year Old: Terrible or Tender
  • Your Three Year Old: Friend or Enemy
  • Your Four Year Old: Wild and Wonderful
  • Your Five Year Old: Sunny and Serene
  • Your Six Year Old: Loving and Defiant
  • Your Seven Year Old: Life in a Minor Key
  • Your Eight Year Old: Lively and Outgoing
  • Your Nine Year Old: Thoughtful and Mysterious
  • Your Ten to Fourteen Year Old: Hostile and Glum, Carefree and Happy

If I were to add a book to the collection about senior year it would be titled, “Your High School Senior: Revisiting Delightful through Deranged. Day-to-day parenting on steroids.”

I love Louis Bates Ames books for the forthright way they address parenting. They outline how children cycle through equilibrium to disequilibrium; explain how the concepts are imprecise and that every child, parent and family is unique. The books also repeatedly remind the reader that they are the adults in the room and to act like it. They note, again and again, that is a parent’s job to enjoy the good times while avoiding the temptation of getting drawn into the drama, tantrums and power struggles.

This is all very apt advice for parenting a senior.

Parenting, at its very core, is about letting go.

It starts out with easier issues like encouraging your two year old to try the slide (even though you secretly are just as happy with them keeping those two chubby feet planted firmly on the ground) and moves us progressively towards more difficult challenges along the letting go spectrum.

This year, our children will rightfully begin to further move towards independence while still in the safety of familiar territory. This is absolutely normal and natural and even smart. Our kids realize, either consciously or unconsciously, that next year the safety net of familiarity will be gone. Thus they seriously begin testing their boundaries with the net still in place. Much like their two, six and twelve year old selves they walk a fine line between craving space and wanting your approval, advice and assistance.

And just like that 3 year old who wore a super-hero cape, tutu and rain boots everyday for 2 months, our seniors are contemplating the timeless questions of who am I and who do I want to be but with the added pressure of knowing that this is their last chance to try on different styles while still at home.

The crazy part is that from our perspective as parents, knowing all of this doesn’t help to make their attempts at separation any less painful or terrifying.  As a parent, senior year is a combination of working diligently to help your child move on while simultaneously wanting to hold on. And the crazy truth is that when we get exactly what we are working so hard to achieve, our hearts will break (and soar) as our children venture out into a bigger world.

For me, senior year requires revisiting every parenting skill I have ever used.

Below is a list I compiled to remind myself how I got to this place.  I’m sharing it in the hopes that it might also help you.

  • Listening works. Especially if you are really listening and not just pretending to listen so you can have your say. (This takes the top spot on my list because I’m tenacious when it comes to trying out   fake listening despite my lack of success with it.)
  • Your senior is swimming in a vortex of test scores, essays, grades, expectations, counselors, friends, stories, hype and endings. Whenever you are tempted to jump into that vortex with your child, remember they desperately need an island of calm to swim back to. Be that island of calm.
  • Genuine curiosity is your friend…unsolicited advice disguised as a question or story is not.
  • Empathy is fundamental to parenting. Put yourself in your senior’s shoes. To do so I’ve tried the following:
    • Write an essay about something that defines you. Pour your heart and soul into the piece, limit yourself to 650 words and ask 3 people you hold in high regard to edit it. (This is my attempt from my daughter’s senior year.)
    • Ask 5 people what they see as your strengths.
    • Research moving to a different city or a new job or a great vacation. Tell everyone you know about it and what your top choices are. Realize your top choices may not happen. Do the work anyway with a good attitude and resilient ego.
  • Avoid ultimatums. You don’t like them. I don’t like them. Your two year old didn’t like them and neither does your senior.
  • Have a thick skin, a good sense of humor and an even better bottle of wine or bar of chocolate at the ready at all times.
  • When the fussy, terrible, defiant, wild, hostile and glum senior rears its head, instead of getting drawn in, suggest doing something together to help them calm down…a walk, a cup of tea, a Netflix break, a most ridiculous meme contest… you can even channel your inner five-year-old parent and host an impromptu mini parade, finger painting with ketchup or kitchen dance party. At the very least, take 3 deep breaths while reminding yourself that your child is in an almost constant state of nervicited and it’s exhausting.
  • Cut yourself some slack. You will mess up. Give voice to your mistakes and move on.
  • Community. Community.
    • For you: have a good friend who is going through the same thing, one who is not and one who is a couple years out, on speed dial.
    • For your senior (because their peer group is not who you want them taking advice from!) when they are freaked out and not able to hear you: an old babysitter who is a couple years out of college, a friend who is happily settled in college, a favorite middle or high school teacher, a hip, young co-worker or neighbor… or any alternative adult they feel comfortable talking to.
  • Turn to the amazing resources that are available to you such as:
    • Grown and Flown, and the book, “Letting Go: A Parent’s Guide to Understanding the College Years.”

Good luck to us all as we strap in for this final lap of day-to-day parenting, using all the ingenuity and all the resilience we can muster, knowing that someday in the not so distant future, we will miss it.