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[JUNE 10, 2004]  URBANA -- College-bound high school graduates should have the world by the tail about now, and their parents should be basking in the glow of their children's accomplishments. So why are these teenagers picking fights and pushing limits, and why are the parents who love them sniffling into Kleenexes when they think no one's looking?

Would it help to call it a developmental stage as predictable as the terrible 2s or a midlife crisis? "It's called learning to let go, and both parents and kids have to do it. In some cases, kids try to push their parents away before their parents can let go of them," said Patti Faughn, a family life educator with University of Illinois Extension.

Experts tell parents to be ready for an identity crisis at this juncture. "For 12 years, these graduating seniors have followed a predictable pattern, often with the same group of kids, and suddenly that structure falls away from them. They wonder: What will be expected of me? How will I perform? Am I an adult now? Can I still rely on my parents?" said Angela Reinhart, another Extension family life educator.

"During my daughter's last year of high school, we fought about so many little things. It seemed like I was always near tears," Reinhart said. "In retrospect, I can understand it. Our kids are afraid of leaving home, but at the same time, they're excited and they want to go. So they pick a lot of fights to make it easier to separate."

Fighting is actually pretty normal, agreed Faughn. "Anytime a person's role changes, it can be stressful, and at this life stage, kids have very conflicting emotions. They want to be treated like adults, but a part of them still doesn't want the responsibility that goes along with that."

In fact, 18-year-olds and 2-year-olds have a lot in common in terms of the adjustments they are making. "At 2, they're learning autonomy and independence, and at 18, they're learning those things all over again," said Faughn.

"Of course, it's much scarier for parents when they're teenagers," she said. "When they're 2, the battles are over what kind of cereal they want to eat. When they're teenagers, they're making decisions that can change their lives in a matter of moments."

"A 2-year-old has no concept of danger," noted Reinhart. "A teenager does have some concept of danger; it's just that she doesn't believe it's going to happen to her."

Reinhart has some advice for getting through this passage. "For one thing, pick your battles carefully. Some things are worth taking a stand over, others just aren't. Keep your rules simple, but enforce the ones you have."

Faughn said it's important for parents to let go gradually. "Parents want their teens to become responsible individuals, but we're often afraid to give kids the freedom to begin making their own decisions and mistakes. It will be easier now if you've been giving your teen more and more responsibility throughout the high school years," she said.


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Curfew can be a contentious issue. After all, in just a few months, college-bound teens will be deciding for themselves when to call it a night. "It may be appropriate to negotiate a new curfew now," Faughn said. "If your son or daughter has always had to be in by midnight or 1 a.m., you can compromise on a new time, with each side giving a little."

And, no matter how prickly things get between you, what kids need most during this transition is unconditional love and a sense that you believe in them, said Faughn.

Reinhart stressed the importance of really listening when your teenagers talk to you and keeping what they say confidential. "Sometimes we go on and on about our own experiences as teens, and we think we're relating to our children, but we're not. They're thinking, 'I'm not you. This is about me.'"

Teens may not want to share what they're telling you with the rest of the family, and they may not talk much at all. When teens don't talk, just spending time with them without an agenda may eventually lead to communication, she added.

When that happens, parents can help by asking their teens probing questions about the decisions they're making -- "not in a way that's challenging but to get them to think things through. If you can sincerely compliment the way they've solved a problem, it boosts their self-confidence. They'll also be more likely to think of you as a resource later on," said Faughn.

All of this is tough advice for parents to follow when they may be feeling kind of emotional and irrational themselves. After all, they're entering a new life stage too.

"That whole last year, I'd have moments when I'd realize: This is the last time we'll be doing this as a family. I kept thinking: It's not time, I should have more time, I still have things I want to teach her," Reinhart said.

"You definitely will feel grief at some point -- just in the sense that an era in your life is over," Faughn added. "For 24 years of my life, I'd been a parent. I'm still a parent, but now I'm more of a consultant. It's a big change, and there's some sadness there."

Both educators suggested drawing close to your partner, learning to like your own company and setting some new goals for the rest of your life. These can be the hardest years in a marriage, and single parents may face an even greater challenge, they said.

"But it's impossible to underestimate the importance of getting your own act together so you can provide a solid home base," they continued. "Almost everything in a high school graduate's world is changing. They may not say so, but their parents' consistency and support is important to them."

[University of Illinois news release]

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