As the parent of a graduating adoptee or foster child, you probably have been pondering numerous choices as your teen finishes high school, such as which college, technical school, or community college to attend; financial aid and scholarships; room mates and living arrangements. As a therapist who specializes in adoption, foster care, and trauma; I would like to make parents aware of another potential issue . . . How will your child will adjust to early independence?
Several years ago, I had several graduating seniors I had been seeing in outpatient therapy. Some of these young adults I had known since they were preschoolers while others I had known for a much shorter time. Some of them had struggled through school and were entering college with a remedial class schedule; others were gifted students and had been awarded full scholarships. I was certain they would all continue to flourish in college, and could not wait to hear about their successes.
Over the next semester, I did hear from their parents and was dumbfounded by the news. All of them arrived at school, were overwhelmed by feelings of abandonment, and emotionally shut down; they slept a lot and did not go to classes. They all flunked out or left school to move back home.
I felt some responsibility. I was part of the team encouraging them to fly the coup without reservation. Some of them returned to counseling and conveyed feeling very emotional, and alone at school. In their rational mind, they knew this was a natural phase in life, yet they felt deep abandonment.
We all learned a lesson from this group of brave kids. Now, I encourage families to take a slower and well planned approach as graduating seniors plan to leave home and pursue their dreams. There are routinely several strategies I suggest to families; alongside the parents and teen, we discuss which strategies are best suited for them.
- We implement a support system, and key people for them at school. The support people will regularly keep a watchful eye on the student and also have written permission to access parents if needed. Please remember to have your teen sign a release of information for therapists, otherwise they can not share information with you.
Before the student and family visits various campuses, we discuss gathering information about the campus counseling office, the availability of their dormitory resident assistant, and on and off campus groups the student is willing to join when they arrive to school.
Even if the student does not feel they will need counseling, it is wise to make weekly appointments with an on campus counselor for the first month. (They can later decide if they want to continue scheduling appointments.) This is a point person who they can check in with, share any feelings about their transition from home, and who can direct them to the right department or person for any questions about housing, academic issues, or any other issues that may arise. (As a parent, your teen may also discuss these issues with you, but you may not know where to direct them to resolve the problem.)
- When possible, teens can live with an older sibling or relative who would be their point person. Living with an older sibling is a slower, yet emotionally safe transition into independence. I have seen this work beautifully in several families. This works best when the siblings have a friendly or close relationship, and parameters are set prior to the move in date. I have worked with a sibling set, and together we created a plan for managing house rules, chores, cooking responsibilities, and how to discuss any conflicts. The siblings agree in advance that parents would be made aware of any transitional difficulties in the younger sibling. In this situation, the teen commits to honest, ongoing conversations with parents about their adjustment.
- Lastly, teens can take a slower route into adulthood, and live at home the first year while working or attending school. This is a great option too, as it allows the teen to move forward by putting their “toes into the water” and slowly adjusting to their new life. After the first year, the family and teen can reevaluate their situation and continue this arrangement or move to the next comfortable stage of transition.
Carol Lozier is a therapist, author, and blogger specializing in trauma; and adoptive and foster kids, teens, and adults. Ms. Lozier is in private practice in Louisville, KY.