HEART OF PARENTING: Sad to Say Goodbye

HEART OF PARENTING • BY EMORY LUCE BALDWIN

Dear Emory,

My 17-year-old daughter has been increasingly difficult to live with.  She is about to graduate from high school, and is making it very clear to me that she can barely stand to be around me or live at home until the fall when she starts college.   I don’t understand why she is being so nasty—it’s not been perfect, but we were mostly getting along up to now.  These are our last months together before she goes away, and I was hoping we would be enjoying this precious times together.  Her snide attitude and critical sniping are really hurting me.  I love my daughter so much, but it doesn’t seem as if she loves me at all anymore.

So Sad on Sycamore

Dear Sad,

The transition from home to college or other learning experiences is a very big change for a kid.  It is quite likely the biggest change your daughter has ever faced in her whole life, and I wonder whether her bad attitude may reflect her sense of anxiety about this experience?  Life changes, even wonderful ones, are invariably stressful.  For some kids, this stress means things like sleeping more and even crying more.  For other kids, the stress can be expressed as impatience and bad temper.

Whether your daughter has never moved before, or she has moved from place to place in the past, she knows that this time will be different because she is doing it all on her own.  Even if she is very excited about moving out of her family home and starting her new more-adult life, she probably feels daunted at the prospect of figuring everything she needs to know to make a happy life for herself in a new and different place. She knows more about what she is leaving, than what she is starting.

Her new beginnings also mean endings—this upcoming move is the point at which your daughter’s childhood largely ends.  Of course, she may not be going far and she will probably be coming home again for frequent visits.  And her college could be a truly wonderful place.  But leaving home means that coming home will never be quite the same again for her.  And, ironically, a happy childhood could be making this transition all that much harder for her.

Sometimes I wonder whether the purpose of the intense irritation and annoyance that is so common between parents and kids at this stage is to mask the truly deep feelings of loss and grief both are experiencing.  It is my experience that this sadness is rarely spoken of openly.  Kids know that they are supposed to be happy about leaving home—and they probably are.  Parents know they are supposed to be proud and happy to see their children graduating and moving on—and they, too, probably feel that way about it.  Yet at the same time, both parents and kids may be experiencing a sense of grief and loss about changes that seem both inevitable and terribly sad.

Your daughter means the world to you, and you are incredibly important to her, too.  Her graduation from high school is a signal to you both that you will soon be moving apart.

If you can, try not to take her bad attitude too personally right now, though you will certainly put reasonable limits on what you are willing and not willing to listen to.  Her irritability is likely a reflection of her own stress and her intense, yet ambivalent, emotions right now.  Your feelings, too, are probably in upheaval—leaving you feeling more sensitive and easily hurt.  Be as gentle as you can with yourself and with her, everyone is probably feeling extra vulnerable right now.

Acknowledging why your daughter is likely to be upset, and acknowledging why you are especially sensitive to her emotional outbursts, may help you both weather this transition better.  Try not to expect too much, and be as patient as you can for the next few months.

There will be plenty of time, in the months and years to come, when you both can develop new ways to stay connected and care about each other.  Your daughter’s childhood is ending, but your new adult mother-daughter relationship is just about to begin.

About the Author

Emory Luce Baldwin
Emory Luce Baldwin is the co-author of "Parenting With Courage and Uncommon Sense." In addition to being a Takoma Park mom for more than 25 years, Emory is also a family therapist in private practice and a parent educator with the Parent Encouragement Program (PEP). Well over a thousand parents have learned from her how to have healthier, happier, and better functioning families — while enjoying her good humored yet practical approach to the ups and downs of family life. Emory’s family therapy offices are located in Takoma Park and at the Parent Encouragement Program in Kensington. You can read more about her at her website: www.emorylucebaldwin.com