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Introduction: Going on Tilt

During a two-year period beginning with the senior year of high school, most parents find themselves confounded by unanticipated challenges. “Why are my daughter and I fighting like cats and dogs now that she’s about to leave?” a mother might ask. “I can’t make one request, remark, or recommendation without infuriating my senior. Whether it’s college application issues, homework, or his social life, he expects to be treated as an adult, but is there no parenting role left for me anymore?” another might wonder.

Vastly underrated as a complicated transition for parents and children alike, the launching years rival any two years of parenting for the formidable events they contain, the challenges and questions they raise, and their sheer emotional intensity. With so little emphasis in our culture on so large a phenomenon, families traveling through this passage can be taken by surprise, particularly since parents experience the lurch of life transition issues at the same time as their child.

A child leaving home is a momentous developmental juncture, now more so than ever because today’s parents are more focused on their children and their relationships with them. Pioneer child psychologist Jean Piaget used the term disequilibrium to describe the lack of stability individuals experience when moving from one developmental stage to the next. To say that families lose their balance and orientation during this transition is no exaggeration. Making matters worse, families are now faced with a highly competitive, anxiety-provoking college admission process, exacerbating the stresses of launching.

The Launching Years guides families through this exciting, inspiring, discomforting, and humbling two-year period filled with sentiments deep and rich. Written for families whose children are considering leaving home for college, it explores and emphasizes the following issues:

Parents who understand the developmental transition of launching and all that it entails will be more effective in parenting. They can maintain greater harmony in their family life and in their relationship with their child, present and future. Just as it’s helpful to know how to interpret a two year old’s temper tantrum as an assertion of self, it’s wise to understand that “launch anxiety” on the part of parents and senior can be behind much of the havoc of senior year. A heightened awareness of the specific hurdles they are facing, along with an appreciation for why everyone is behaving as they are, can help parents navigate this stage more successfully and set themselves up for a mutually satisfying future relationship.

The elongation of adolescence leaves many parents surprised by how much longer they are actively parenting. The question is—What is the nature of parenting as children mature? Now that military service, marriage or employment are no longer the staples of life after high school, young people ages 18 to 25 within our culture are “emerging adults”. During this prolonged period, young people actively explore possibilities in love, work, and worldviews, and this process often involves risky behaviors, which, surprisingly enough, can be even more prevalent than during the teen years. Since the average age at marriage for Americans is 25 for women and 27 for men, parents remain their primary family unit much longer than a generation ago. The reality is that until our emerging adults are securely established, parents need to provide the continuing help young people need to cross the threshold to adult roles. Depriving them of support during this crucial period has been shown to inhibit their ultimate independence.

It takes extraordinary resourcefulness for families to negotiate this new parenting terrain, unmapped by previous generations who engaged in far less parenting after their children turned 18 than we do today. To parent optimally through this period, parents need an ingenious blend of support and challenge. In times of trouble, parents support, guide, and even rescue their emerging adults whenever necessary. Likewise, for their growth and increased competence, we challenge them to be more independent and to learn their way in the world. Vignettes in The Launching Years bring this delicate dance to life.

Senior year of high school is inherently tricky to manage. Parenting during this year is orchestrated around preparing children for greater independence and, for many, around leave taking. Although many students live at home while attending college, higher education has become a rite of passage, with the majority of youth participating. Within our culture, heading to college is the way that most young people separate from their families.

The college years are not only an academic experience, but also the means whereby young people shed their reliance on parents, becoming less emotionally dependent on their support and authority—rarely a smooth process. With stress in college life at an all time high, challenges of mental health, ideological dilemmas, substance abuse, and love life and career decision making abound. For various reasons, often practical in nature, many young people will drop out of college, and more students than not will take more than four years to complete a Bachelor Degree. The Launching Years shows parents ways to be helpful and not harmful.

Knowing the ingredients for a successful launch from home gives parents some guideposts for building their child’s competencies during this two-year period. Not all young people are ready for the independence of today’s college campuses at age 18. Young people who leave home successfully have accomplished a series of developmental tasks, as described in our book The Seven-Year Stretch: How Families Work Together to Grow Through Adolescence. Likewise, The Launching Years provides parents with Information to determine whether their child is ready to launch and what the best path might be, given today’s diverse timetables and paths to autonomy.

The Launching Years is a companion volume to all of the how-to books on college admissions in that it focuses on family relationships during this transition. It explains why young people move through the launching years in different ways and what parents can do to prepare their child not just to be accepted into college but also to be successful and self-reliant in life.

Parenting during the launching transition involves an inspired mixture of letting go, within a context of staying connected. Even as parents’ roles shift and young people become more independent in every way, parents continue to stay connected to their children, providing them with both roots and wings. When we say good-bye at the college gate, we don’t simply let go with blind trust. Young people leave home with 18 years of our relating to them within them, as well as all their competence developed over that time. Emerging adults can draw on these internal resources for guidance, feelings of security, and a means of coping with the adversities they’ll inevitably face. Still, the degree to which they can draw on their strengths will be mitigated by their temperament and the magnitude of the stresses they incur. Delineating obstacles that some parents and children will confront, The Launching Years provides parents with the means to assess whether they should make a leap of faith that their child can handle a challenge or, conversely, whether they should move in with direct assistance.

This transition involves a range of thorny issues and dilemmas that families may face. The Launching Years walks parents through many tough, multilevel problems. Situations covered include these:

  • You’re beside yourself over the application process but your senior is doing nothing except procrastinate;
  • Your senior, whose learning issues suggest a different timetable, looks as if he’s trying NOT to graduate;
  • You’re puzzling over what launching means to you personally, since over the last 18 years three-quarters of your life has revolved around parenthood;
  • Your just-graduated daughter, who has always been so perfect, winds up in the emergency room from alcohol poisoning, and it looks as if she’s developing an eating disorder;
  • Your college freshman calls you in a tizzy, “dumping” all her upset on you, and you’re not sure how to calm her down;
  • Your feisty daughter has issued an ultimatum about sleeping in your home with her boyfriend;
  • You find condoms in your son’s pockets, and since he’s a single guy, this indicates he’s engaging in casual sex;
  • Your son’s level of alcohol consumption has always worried you, and now he’s in deep trouble over a fraternity brawl involving extensive vandalism.

At any stage of child rearing, parents can feel buffaloed by problems, but the gargantuan issues that may arise during launching can make potty training or a child sleeping through the night look like small potatoes. As with earlier challenges, though, there are successful ways to see them through.

Once our children are more established and independent, they’re still ours, but in a more liberated way. The overarching task for families during the launching years is to negotiate the transition to a close adult-adult relationship. Resolving the loss of our old parent-child relationship, we forge a new one, based less on direct control and more on consultation and mutually agreed upon ways of staying close. Still, it involves a certain amount of “growing pains” to get there, with the toughest times starting senior year. What an amazing two years these can be, but what a payoff when parents know how to both support their child through inevitable setbacks and challenge them to make the most of their assets. Then, as young people begin to come into their own, parents enjoy the fruit of an easier, more open relationship.

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