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Senioritis and 'Soiling-the-Nest:' 3 Coping Tips for Parents

Second semester Senior year brings out the worst and most complicated in all of us, parents and teens alike. Why? Our identities, roles and relationships suffer a seismic shift when a child leaves home.
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Student carrying books outdoors
Student carrying books outdoors

Surely you've heard of that scourge, senioritis -- symptoms include:

1-Slug-like absence of productive motivation

2-Allergy to spending time with parents

3-Manic compulsion to socialize any time, day or night.

4-Arrogant swagger about ability to manage one's own affairs ("I've GOT it; calm DOWN!!")

5-Abject inability to tend to simplest self-care responsibilities, such that trails of detritus mark their every coming and going.

6-Reckless sense of invincibility regarding risk-taking behaviors with drugs, alcohol, driving, college-acceptance-endangering academic free-fall).

Surely you've heard too the saying: "Insanity is hereditary; parents get it from their kids... " The collateral symptoms of Senioritis on us parents?

1-Jaw pain and cracked molars from angry teeth gritting and grinding;

2-Rapid greying and loss of hair from chronic worry and sleep deprivation;

3-Compulsive urges to hug or throttle your kid, or both simultaneously.

4-Surges of unexpected melancholy in the face of good news of college acceptances; our Seniors' flight from our nests now has a destination. ( think someone out there actually WANTS our kids!)

5-Emotional swings between wistfully missing the children our Seniors once WERE and fretfully panicking about how the children our Seniors ARE will possibly survive next year (...especially with those kids who are shoe-ins for "Darwin Awards!")

6-Disorientation in the face of time's swift passage. Just last year, it seemed, your Senior was in elementary school... now you've become "that guy" crazy old coot advising young parents of toddlers at grocery stores to "enjoy every moment, they grow up so fast..."

What's going on?

Second semester Senior year brings out the worst and most complicated in all of us, parents and teens alike. Why? Our identities, roles and relationships suffer a seismic shift when a child leaves home. Change, be it positive or negative, is always stressful. Indeed, the mere anticipation of change builds tension, like the broad jumper recoiling before springing forth.

Long ago, parenting experts Ames and Ilg (Your Two Year Old, Gesell Institute of Human Development, 1976) outlined the dynamic of "interweaving" of states of equilibrium ( when children are at certain plateaus of acquired developmental ability), which give way to disequilibrium in preparation for new challenges to strain to master. New steps toward increased independence such as crawling, standing and walking, are preceded by preparatory periods of fussy, agitated tension. It's Mother Nature providing children with anticipatory frustrated energy, which, like a rocket-booster, lends extra thrust to help them clear the next developmental hurdle.

How might this apply to our Seniors? Perhaps Senioritis is much more than jubilant release from the chain-gang grind of high school and college-application ordeals. Perhaps their cavalier carelessness disguises uneasiness about emerging from adolescence to young adulthood out there in the wide world. Silently, even unwittingly, our Seniors may struggle with vulnerability and self-doubt about being equipped to fling themselves into the daunting unknowns of the next stage of life. They cannot directly confront their sadness about saying good-bye to the familiar "knowns" of childhood: the family, school, all the small tribes of their social subgroups. How could they take flight, so weighed down by such emotional burdens? Better to fling off all that drag and fixate only on enhancing the "good riddance" of their good-byes. Better yet, why not soil the nest on the way out, "gifting" US with an easier "good-riddance to you too" good-bye?! The more toxic and messy they are, the easier transitioning to the next phase will be, for them, and for us.

My advice for this transitional phase? To all outward appearances, go along with it, but don't buy it. Don't let them succeed in leaving you feeling presumptuously exploited or shabbily discarded. Don't let them pull you off your loving, self-respecting, know-better center of gravity. How?

1-Keep holding them to standards of responsible and thoughtful engagement with the family -- indeed-up the ante. Two can play this game! We can make being home even more exasperating and easier to leave while simultaneously assuring they've got those skills of self-care well established before they go! Invite/insist that your Seniors do their own laundry, including towels and sheets, and make one family meal a week now that they've got all this extra time on their hands. Nudge them to earn money for their own current and future expenses.

2-Cherish what you can secure of special time with them, but with the lightness of spirit that disguises your desperation(!). They're home perhaps 15 more weeks. If your Seniors are MIA 24/7, rope them into one special family meal a week which will be preserved going forward; Sunday brunch, Thursday dinner, Sunday supper, whatever works. Also seek out wedges of one-on-one time to hang out in a low-key companionable way: watch episodes of a thrilling series together, walk the dog, play Banana-grams, visit grandparents.

3-DO hide your melancholy about their imminent departure. Remember, about 14 years ago, when you brought your child to daycare or preschool for the first time, and put on a game-face of breezy "you'll be just fine" optimism? Channel that same upbeat outlook to facilitate their leave-taking by not contaminating the atmosphere with your parting sorrow. Even try to talk yourself into that perspective. (You wouldn't actually want them staying HOME would you... ?!) As always, our children are far more perceptive than we ever give them credit for. They're looking to see how bereft we might be as a sign of how distraught THEY should feel in leaving US behind. Admittedly, for many of us, this will be NO PROBLEM! Indeed, we've been anticipating this moment gleefully for YEARS! Still, the feelings of life's swift passage, and our children's astonishingly fast development can tip-toe up and ambush us. Be open to those truths, but share them with other adults, not your kids.

And give sober thought to self-enriching endeavors to fill in the hole your seniors will leave behind in your day-to-day lives this Fall. Like all life ruptures, this too can be, in the Buddhist vernacular, a "Happy blessed Opportunity."