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First there is graduation day and then, in just a few months, many San Diego young adults will be leaving the comfort of their homes, family, and friends to embark upon a new stage in their lives – “the life of college”. On the surface, many state excitement,relief, and motivation, but just beneath the surface is some anxiety based on the unknown and having to face the new found tasks of Young Adulthood. Going away to college is much more than merely going to a “bigger” school and having to “work harder”. It involves greater independence and required self-sufficiency which many have never experienced due to the common and needed involvement of family helping them with daily tasks such as cooking, laundry, and finance. Becky, a 17 year old student hoping to be on her way to University of Arizona, recently realized that she did not know how to do her own laundry; Steven, a hopeful freshman-to-be at Berkeley, has never owned an alarm clock because he has been used to his parents waking him up every morning to get ready for school; Sally, excited about maybe starting UCLA in the Fall, has never had her own checking account and debit card stating that this was “something I never really thought about until now”; Peter, has never had a girlfriend or been on a date. In fact, he was so dedicated to his studies in order to get into Harvard, he never went to a single party or dance in high school. He recently stated: “how do you talk to girls?”
Leaving home thrusts the Adolescent into a new stage of development: Young Adulthood and additionally shifts parents into a further stage of Middle Adulthood. Both of these new stages involve greater tasks and adjustment to a new life phase. For the Young Adult, being on their own makes them more personally accountable and having to rely on their personal knowledge, experience, and intuition to get through each and every day. The Young Adult who has greater knowledge and experience based on some preparedness, tends to adjust better and faster than the ones who do not have such knowledge. Research indicates that the adjustment to the first year of college is much more about adjusting to being independent and outside the comfort of their family, than the academic requirements of college itself. It is common for the college freshman to call home frequently, become homesick, ask a lot of questions, and still need mom and dad to help them adjust to this new time in their lives. In fact, the students who are least psychologically and practically prepared can become depressed and in some cases have to return closer to home to complete their college experience.
Parents who truly understand this shift and work together in advance with their growing son or daughter to become prepared, leave their child in a better condition than the parents who believe that their job is over and their child is “out of their nest”. Sitting down in advance and having discussions about leaving home, practically setting up important living essentials, such as a checking account, and reviewing situations and independent tasks is essential as well as making more than one visit, if possible, to the new “college home” prior to leaving in the Fall in order to become better acquainted and familiar with a new environment. Parents also need to go visit, at least a few times if possible, during freshman year just to make sure everything is going well and to be supportive to their son or daughter.
For the parents, having their child leave home is bittersweet. On the one hand, there is a sense of feeling proud and happy for their child that they have survived adolescence, but there is also a sense of loss that a bedroom and place at the dinner table is empty. Coming home for a holiday is not the same as them living at home – college is their new home as it represents their future as an independent adult. Here, the parent is also having to change and grow based on loss. Shifting into a new stage of adulthood means reviewing life’s goals and desires. For many couples, children leaving home allows for greater intimacy that had been on hold for a number of years due to the important investment of parenting. Opportunities can now arise for time together embarking on reviving aspects in the adult relationship that were placed on hold. After Tom and Susie dropped off their daughter Zoe at U.C. Santa Barbara last year, they decided to take the coast highway home and ended up spontaneously stopping for two nights in Big Sur for a little vacation. “Wow, stated Susie, we haven’t been able to do that for 17 years! that was fun!”.
Changing and shifting developmentally is both exciting and a little scary. It also involves some mourning of the “old days” which we see when those high school students and parents cry at graduation and after dropping off their new adult at college. Families who talk about these changes and plan ahead accordingly adapt best to these new stages of development and better relish with new opportunities. Many parents boast with how mature their child has become when they come to visit from college. “They seem so grown up……they are actually nice to us……they help clean up…..they even ask how we are doing………I thought none of us were going to make it through Adolescence, but now we are closer than ever, like we were when they were little kids……….”
Dr. Keith Kanner is a Licensed and Board Certified Clinical Child, Adolescent, and Adult Psychologist and Psychoanalyst. In addition to a full-time private practice in Rancho Santa Fe, California, he is an Assistant Clinical Professor of Psychiatry in the School of Medicine at the University of California San Diego where he teaches both human development and also trains medical students how to better understand and relate to their patients. He also serves as the Director of Clinical Counseling for La Jolla Country Day School in La Jolla, California, and is a Clinical Professor at The San Diego Psychoanalytic Society and Institute. Dr. Kanner also sits on the National Board of Directors for Kids Korps USA, which is the largest organization in the country that teaches children and adolescents the importance of volunteering to help the community at large. As a father of three children, he is also a dedicated baseball, football, and soccer coach.