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How to handle pre-launch jitters with children

Early on in my career as a family therapist, I worked with a family in full-blown “senioritis” mode. Their son was a good student, busy in extracurricular activities and sports, had a part-time job, and a good group of friends. As soon as spring hit, tensions in the house rose between he and his parents, especially his father.

They were fighting frequently and the fights were escalating with each exchange. They sought help to come up with some ways to co-exist until their son left for college. To a degree, what was going on between them was a natural occurrence.

Call it pre-launch jitters. The son was ready to be off on his own, the parents were ready for him to move on to the next phase of life, but the countdown was too slow.

There are natural progressions in a family’s development with the launch of their children. It’s completely normal. And whether this launch involves a high-schooler leaving the nest for college, a student entering middle school, or a child entering kindergarten, tension spikes in the household are bound to happen.

Here are a few things to watch for, and ways to address these launches.

Increased tension in your relationship.

frustrated woman
Photo by Laura Wilkerson

Both the parent and the child often experience this — your exchanges are more reactionary and abrupt. This is often a gradual shift and doesn’t happen overnight.

What you can do:

Recognize the tension and calm yourself down by leaving the conversations before they escalate. Model being an adult who can handle him or herself, and re-engage when you’re more rational and calm. You can still address any bad behaviors, they just don’t have to be handled all at once.

A more frustrated child.

Part of launching into a new life phase involves quite a bit of fear and frustration — a senior ready for college may be scared about the future. This is normal. He may be frustrated that he still has to follow your rules when he already thinks of himself as an adult.

This increase in frustration also applies to younger children. Each time one of my children approached a milestone phase in development (like walking, talking, or starting school), his or her frustration levels increased.

This is because he or she wants to achieve the next level, but is unable to master it quickly. Let’s face it, talking, school, and living on your own take time to master.

What you can do:

Back off a bit and allow the child to develop the necessary skills each stage requires. Let her struggle through this opportunity for growth, and remain available as a support if and when you’re needed.

Offer your love and empathize with her struggle, but don’t shelter her from it. Tell her “I love you” often.

Planning a launch.

Photo by Werwin 15

In many cultures, there are rights of passage when a boy becomes a man or a girl becomes a woman. Each stage launch should be celebrated.

As your child grows, each stage can be celebrated a bit more — start a tradition of a pre-middle school vision quest, a high school family trip, or a full-blown launch party for college or adulthood. Anticipating these events can really help ease the uncertainty and tension surrounding each launch.

Want to know how the family I worked with addressed their concerns? After recognizing that what they were going through was normal, they decided together that their son would start college in the summer rather than fall. This got him out of the house sooner and probably avoided quite a bit of damage to their relationship. This was the son’s idea, by the way.

Do you have a milestone headed your family’s way? What are your plans to celebrate it?

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  1. Tidy Brown Wren

    I live in an area with a high concentration of military families. They often experience symptoms like you described in the article whenever the mom or dad is getting ready to leave or return from a tour. It’s a tough transition for everyone involved. Thanks for the tips and reminders.

  2. Meredith from Penelope Loves Lists

    So true. Last summer, as my daughter got ready to enter high school, we started to bicker a bit more than normal.

    We later realized it was anxiety on both our parts causing the issues. Once school began and we all got into the routine, we felt so much better.

  3. Angelica Perez

    In the Latino culture, we like to celebrate milestones and achievements, regardless of how small or little they are. Graduations, test completions, turning a particular age, are all reasons to celebrate. I see these as opportunities to acknowledge the event, come together as a family, and say a few words — which is where I usually give my 2 cents on the matter at hand. Thanks for a great post!

    Angelica @ Modern Familia

  4. Alison

    Great article. My middle schooler and I have really been struggling with her desire for more independence and my desire to continue to control. With high school around the corner my “clutches” seem to be so exagerated compared to her aloofness. We talk a lot (luckily!) and with some reasonable boundaries (set and tested) so I think we’ll be ok. But its tough! We plan to celebrate starting high school with a family trip.

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