Our family is about to wrap up our last college visit this weekend. Our son is polishing his college applications and researching potential scholarship opportunities. For the most part, our venture into the college search has been marked with open communication, shared excitement and anticipation of the new experiences ahead for my son as he launches into his next phase of life. But most recently, my usually affectionate, talkative, connected kid has shown us a different persona — curt, isolated, ripe with comments like “I can’t wait till I’m OUT of here!”, and “You won’t know ANYTHING I’m doing when I’m away at school!” Wait…what???
The Push and Pull of Separation
Luckily, my sanity — and training — kicked in relatively quickly. After I reigned in my carastrophic thinking (“Is he doing drugs? I know it, the last time he’ll speak to me is when I drop him off at college! Doesn’t he realize I’m the COOL mom?? We’ll see how he likes being grounded until graduation!!”) I realized my son is doing exactly what he’s supposed to be doing: he’s separating. The developmental task of separation/individuation happens to allow children to discover who they are in relation to where and who they came from. This phase can include rebellious behavior, exploration of new or alternate values and interests, and a greater investment in peer relationships over family. When an adolescent pulls away from family influences and moves toward new experiences, people and ideas, he is building the “muscles” of self-identification. I thought back to myself in high school — my shaved head, punk rock preferences and surly posturing were no doubt concerning to my parents. But, like most people, I mirrored most of my family of origin’s values and belief systems once I fully arrived in adulthood. And I am fully aware that my son’s pushback is mild compared to the challenges many parents face with acting out adolescents. My greatest hope for my son has always been that he believe enough in himself to launch into the world with authenticity and confidence. If the cost of that is a few eye rolls, exaggerated sighs and reminders of just how “uncool” my rules and requests are, I’m willing to pay that price.