David C. Rettew, MD, is a child psychiatrist at the UVM Medical Center, where he is Director of the Pediatric Psychiatry Clinic.

David C. Rettew, MD, is a child psychiatrist at the UVM Medical Center, where he is Director of the Pediatric Psychiatry Clinic.

This is the time of high school graduations. Many of these young adults will be spending perhaps their last summer at home before going off to college, while others will be entering the workforce. Some will have their next step securely in place, while others may be less sure about what to do for the ensuing chapter of their life. The predominant emotions around this time tend to be very positive with a combination of excitement, pride, adventurousness, and even relief. At the same time, however, parents and those who spend time with our new graduates also need to be mindful about some other feelings that could be swirling around in the mix.

Loss. For many graduates, their entire social network is about to change completely for the first time ever. While technology makes it easier than ever to stay in touch, even this generation can feel the difference between actually spending time with friends and a text. The prospect of not being around family members as much may also be looming, even if it is hard for some graduates to admit that they will miss their parents or siblings.

Jealousy. Most of us don’t always get what we want, and it can be difficult for graduates to see others going to the college that didn’t accept them or beginning a job for which they were turned down.

Regret. Up to this point, our graduates have been told repeatedly that “their entire life is ahead of them” and that their efforts are “opening doors” to limitless possibilities. These clichés remain largely true, but now, the sounds of a few closing doors can also be heard. As wonderful as choices are, they generally mean that other things are not picked. Doubt about the path not chosen may felt more acutely than it has in the past.

What should a good parent do about this? Here are a few tips during this wonderful but challenging time.

  1. Encourage a conversation by telling your own stories. Many adolescents don’t respond well to direct questions about how they are feeling about certain situations. One way to open the door is for parents to talk about their own stories and emotions either about the past of what they are experiencing right now. You might first get the eye rolling “here comes another old story” look, but it can help get a discussion going. My kids have heard the story more than once about how I changed majors four times in college and how being a physician was the first career that I ever ruled out. And when your graduate does start talking….stop and listen.
  2. Don’t feel like you have to fix everything. Many well-meaning parents go immediately into problem-solving mode when they hear about struggles their child is facing. This is natural but not always necessary or even optimal. Sometimes just hearing people out and normalizing their emotions can do more than we think.
  3. Talk about the future. It can reassuring for some graduates, especially those who plan to move farther away, to hear some concrete plans about getting together for parents weekend or travel arrangements back home for Thanksgiving. Discussions about plans for regular phone or video calls (even if you end up changing them) can remind graduates that they will still be very much part of the family.

Of course, parents and family members of graduates are also likely feeling a lot of intense and mixed emotions. These are completely expected, and an ability to recognize, accept and talk about them with others can help everyone navigate these transitional times best.

David C. Rettew, MD, is a child psychiatrist at the UVM Medical Center and director of the Child & Adolescent Psychiatry Residency Program.

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