May and June are traditional months for graduations; high school and college students donning cap and gown to march across the stage to grasp the diploma from the hands of their principal or college president. The diploma signifies the successful completion of an academic degree, the end of one life stage and the commencement of the next phase of life for that student.
Graduates may feel a sense of freedom, and/or a sense of fear about what is ahead. The uncertainty that surrounds young adults at this stage of their lives is epic. Decisions about going to college (or graduate school or to the work force), relationships with peers, managing life financially can be stalled out with endless questions of how?, when?, where? and how much? The focus of these questions is profoundly about themselves, completely normal for this developmental stage of emerging adulthood (Arnett 2000).
Parents are also facing big questions as they prepare for their child to graduate from high school or college. The practical questions of “what is next for my child?” and “how much will it cost me?” are easy to predict. The less anticipated questions are those questions that focus the parent back to themselves. Parents may evaluate their own success in relation to the success (or lack thereof) of their child.
The role of the parent is consuming and central to many adults and is deeply affected by transition at the beginning stage of parenting (bringing home an infant) and the later stage (sending an adult child to college) (DeVries, Kerrick, Oetinger, 2008). Factoring the developmental stage (mid-life) of many parents at the time of their child’s graduation is important to this discussion. A familiar feature of mid-life stage is the individual taking stock of their life and their achievements. Feelings of pride, regret, loss or longing may occur during this appraisal of life applied to family, peer relationships and career.
A review of the stages of the family life-cycle in stages:
Stage One: Single young adults leave home
Stage Two: The new couple joins their families through marriage or living together
Stage Three: Families with young children
Stage Four: Families with adolescents
Stage Five: Launching children and moving on
Stage Six: Families in later life
When we blend the uncertainty of which choices to make, identity exploration, and inward focus of the emerging adult (graduate) with the mid-life appraisal of the parent, we can find a family in a transition stage of its life cycle. Transitions of this sort are likely to vary in timeframe, some families feeling the stress of transition for a shorter time than others. How do I navigate the stress of this time period?
Self reflection is the first recommendation proposed for this process. The emerging adult would focus their self reflection on three main areas: love, work, and worldviews (Arnett 2000).
Some examples of these questions would be:
- “Am I prepared to explore and/or establish a committed relationship based on emotional and physical intimacy?”
- “Is my current part-time or full-time job going to help me prepare for a life-long career, or is it primarily helping me finance my current lifestyle?”
- “Do I work in an area that highlights and nurtures my natural talents and abilities?”
- “How much time to I expect to need to determine the path my career will take?”
- “Is a path through a college or a degree program the best one for me at this time?”
- “What belief system am I questioning at this time (political, personal, or religious)? Do the new ideas I am considering impact how I will relate to others in my peer group or family?”.
Self reflection of the mid-life parent may be focused on areas of satisfaction or regret in parenting choices and other decisions up to this point in life.
Some examples of these questions may be;
- “What am I most happy about as I think about my child finishing high school/college?”
- “What am I most worried about, or most regretful of as I think about my child graduating?”
- “What have I have been planning in anticipation of my child graduating?” (DeVries, Kerrick, Oetinger 2008).
- “How will my spouse and I relate to each other now that our focus is no longer on parenting?”
The mid-life adult and the emerging adult could find themselves feeling very distant from each other, having difficulty understanding the other’s situation. This is a normal feature in the process of separation and individuation the child had begun in adolescence.
The mid-life adult could find the concept of “moving ahead” in life without their child being as much of a priority an odd idea, but a typical one for those moving through the family life-cycle nonetheless.
In essence, this is a time for recognizing the changes in each of the family members’ lives, as well as the need to redefine the roles and goals of each person moving forward. While you celebrate the graduation, take a few moments to look at how life in your family is about to move into an entirely new phase of life!
Arnett, J. (2000) Emerging Adulthood: A theory of development from the late teens through the twenties. American Psychologist, vol.55, no. 5, 469-480.
DeVries, H.M.; Kerrick, S., Oetinger, M. (2008). Satisfactions and regrets of midlife parents: A qualitative analysis. Journal of Adult Development, 14:6-15.