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Fleeing the Nest: Coping with the Emotions Around Graduation

“Long ago you came to me,

A miracle of firsts:

First Smiles and teeth and baby steps,

A sunbeam on the burst.

But one day you will move away

And leave me to your past,

And I will be left thinking of

A lifetime of your lasts…”

–Karen Kingsbury, Author

This excerpt comes from my favorite children’s book, “Let Me Hold You Longer” by Karen Kingsbury. There tends to be such emphasis on experiencing our childrens’ “firsts”; first word, first steps, first holidays, etc. And while these are certainly exciting and meaningful benchmarks, it’s not often we know the last time our children will ask to be picked up, need help getting ready, or ask us to lay with them. As many of this year’s graduates prepare to leave home and take this first step towards adulthood, the “lasts” may seem to be everywhere.

As we find ourselves in the presence of a new year, many of us may experience January as

a rather uneventful time. However, some will experience one of the most significant events in

their young lives as graduation approaches. For many teens, this is a long-awaited time, with

senioritis possibly in full swing and many exciting year-end events on the horizon. While we

look forward to celebrating and encouraging them, it’s very common to experience conflicting emotions. I often hear parents and caregivers say they can’t quite label this place between pride, happiness, nostalgia, and sadness. I encourage families to consider how this may be its own grieving process, one where feelings can coexist and change rapidly.

How might grieving look during this time?

While it’s an individual process, experiencing episodes of tearfulness, a sense of time escaping us, looking back on old photos/longing for earlier days, and fears about their future are often all part of this journey. The confusion often arises as we are feeling all of this mixed with a swelling sense of pride and excitement for what lies ahead of them. I often have parents/caregivers tell me in session that they are upset with themselves for feeling anything but happiness for their child. Please know that you can be absolutely thrilled for them, while also grieving for what has passed. Accepting and allowing feelings often results in less struggle, as well as increasing our confidence that we can cope through it.

While this may be quickly approaching, there are still opportunities to maximize the time you

have. I often encourage parents/caregivers to engage with their support network and really talk about how difficult this may be for them. Talk to your teen about what excites them about this transition, and also what fears or concerns they may have. Grow your bond through these talks and notice the relationship taking its first steps towards an adult one.

Expect that you may be very emotional when that time comes and that is completely okay. You are definitely not alone and so much else lies ahead.

By: Maura L. Johnson, LCSW, PMH-C


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