When I started thinking about what to write in this article, I was on an airplane coming back from speaking with international college students at Clark University near Boston. I suppose the airplane is where a lot of global nomads like me do their thinking and reflecting. I thought back to when I was 17, on an airplane from Singapore (where I went to high school) to the US for university. I remember being nervous must mostly excited. I remember having no idea what university would really be like. Leading up to that flight I remember the rollercoaster that my parents and I were on. We let the stress get to us and argued quote a bit. But we also had many moments of celebration and excitement for what was to come. If we could all do it again what sort of advice would have helped?
I can tell you from my personal perspective and my professional expertise that the most important thing a family can do in anticipation of their teen leaving the nest is to communicate. If everyone is being proactive in expressing themselves, actively listening to each other and seeking to understand each other, the stress of this transition will be decreased for the teen and everyone around them. I recently asked Julia Simens, the author of The Emotionally Resilience and the Expat Child and the parent of two global nomad college students to share her insight on the matter. She said, “Emotions are the glue that is binding people together. Conversely, emotions are also what drive people apart. As your children head off to university, prepare them well by being honest with your own emotions and letting them see how to express these emotions.”
That said, not all of us know how to communicate so well. In my Irish-American family culture, for generations, we have been taught not to discuss difficult feelings for the fear of appearing weak or of creating more pain by talking about it. If this sounds similar to your family’s dynamic, I urge you try a different approach. Clear and compassionate communication is the single best way to keep your family happy and healthy.
Here are some pointers:
1. Have a family meeting. Create intentional time where you are all together. Turn off your cell phones, put away your iPads. Ask questions that are specific but still open ended. For example, ask “What are you most looking forward to?” or “What are you most nervous about?” or “What do you need from me before you leave?” Ask these questions of your teen but also have your teen ask you these same questions back. Afterall, communication is a two way street. This will help your teen understand that this is a process for you, too, and that you are in this together.
Additionally, take this time to tell them that you love them. Tell them that you are proud of them and specifically what makes you proud of them. Count the achievements, big and small, that have led your teen to this big transition. Remind them what traits and skills they have that will help them find success after high school.
2. Listen well. Make sure you really listen to your teen. Put your phone down, make eye contact, be aware of what triggers you to get upset and what triggers your teen to get upset. Listen in order to understand before making yourself understood. Repeat back what you hear and ask for clarification. Allow for silences as it can take teens some time to articulate how they are feeling.
3. Don’t shy away from anger or the silent treatment: Sometimes when people anticipate a goodbye they want to protect themselves from the possible pain of that goodbye. A common way to do this for teens is to show anger or to create distance. Give teens their space but create more intentional times to connect. Let them know that you notice they are shutting down and that you want their help in understanding what they need from you.
4. Encourage your teen to talk to older siblings or friends in university. It is not always easy for teens to talk to parents about these sorts of things. Talking to an older friend who has been through the transition already can be invaluable. A great question for your teen to start with is, “What do you know now that you wish you knew then?”
5. Talk about money. Money is not always the easiest thing to talk about but if you can model ease and clarity in communicating on this topic, you will set an excellent example for life. Discuss what your teen’s budget will be, tools to stay under budget, what happens if your teen runs out of money, etc. Like all good parenting, make sure you set clear rules and consequences for breaking those rules. Since your teen is becoming an adult, involve them in creating those rules and consequences. Tina Quick, writes about how and what to talk about when it come to financials in her book “A Global Nomad’s Guide to University Transition.” (A must-read for both students heading to university and their parents.)
If you have made an effort to do these things, I promise you will have more peace of mind when your teen gets on that airplane to leave home for university or for whatever other post-secondary adventure on which they are going to embark. As for your son or daughter, they will have those hours on that airplane, like tens of thousands of other global young adults around the world, to be still. They won’t be able to text, they won’t have appointments to run to. Instead they will have hours to reflect on the quality time they spent with their family and those meaningful conversations they had a long the way.
Looking towards the future, they will feel supported, prepared, and most of all, loved.