A Message to Parent of Seniors – There is an Explanation for the Mood Swings

By Executive Director, John Reilly, LCSW, NCPsyA

If you are the parent of a graduating senior, especially a parent of a senior leaving for college in a few weeks, and you are experiencing unexplainable mood swings, you are not losing your mind. Beyond mood changes, your child may be starting to act in ways that are unpredictable or are a return to old patterns of behavior. But your graduating senior is not going crazy either. Both you and your child are going through a similar experience – getting ready to separate. What is the best thing to do about it? Be aware that separation is at the root and relax, then enjoy the time you have together. After all, you have been working for this since your child was born.

As we prepare to have our 18th commencement at Sage Day and I complete my 23rd year in private practice, I am again reminded of how exciting and difficult graduation can be for students and parents. Students are moving into a new, unpredictable phase of life and parents are aware that their children are now young adults – The days of going to sporting events, school activities, car pooling and just having them around the house are over.

Right around the spring, I start to listen for predictable changes in my patient’ s feelings about their kids while also listening for reports of changes in the child’s overall behavior. In my role as a supervisor, I remind therapists to help students to be aware of their feelings about graduating. As a rule, what isn’t remembered or understood, is often acted out – so with that in mind, the more one is aware the less one acts out (well in theory at least.) Parents and students may begin to feel unexplainably sad, angry anxious, and may either withdraw (e.g, not speak to each other) or fight and push limits. The goal is for parent to realize that something is being acted out and if they can understand that they are having feelings about the separation, it can go a long way in helping the parent empathize with themselves and their children. In turn, the parent can help the child to realize that he or she may have feelings about graduating and leaving home. The negative alternative is for things to escalate to the point where the parent says, “I can’t wait for you to leave!!!!” and/or the child says, “I hate you. . . I can’t wait to get away from you!!!!”

Parents can experience feelings of abandonment and irrational fears related to their children graduating and leaving home. It is best to remember that leaving is developmentally normal and while having some fears is normal, the child should not be made to feel guilty or overly anxious about leaving by the parent. It is the job of the parent to understand what is going on and to help the child leave from a stable place.

I have another year to go before my own son goes off to college but, as we make visits to colleges, I am well aware that there are big changes on the horizon. I had an experience that helped me to be aware of the emotional shifts that can be triggered by even small separations. In my case, it was my son’s first year at sleepaway camp at age 12. Around May of that year, I started to have unexplainable, intermittent feelings of sadness. It took me time to connect those feelings to my son’s imminent departure for 7 weeks. Once I was able to connect his leaving with the sadness it made a big difference. I had a context for the sadness that made sense; my first child was leaving for the first time. Every year since has gotten easier even though I miss him when he’s gone.

Saying goodbye for a while is never easy, but being aware that it is normal to feel a range of feelings will help the goodbye to be minimally eventful and will pave the way for some hugs and tears that can actually help the separation go much easier. Congratulations to all the parents of graduates – they wouldn’t have gotten there without you.