Thanklessly Parenting an Older Adolescent in Senior Year

Concerns with leaving school and moving on can cause insensitivity to parents.

Posted Dec 28, 2020

Carl Pickhardt Ph. D.
Source: Carl Pickhardt Ph. D.

The endgame of parenting a high school senior can be a complicated time—the teenager getting ready to go and the parent getting ready to let go. 

Whether she is soon to be living at home on more independent standing, leaving home for a job and apartment-sharing, or moving on for further schooling, forthcoming change in their relationship is underway.

At this juncture, parent and adolescent may have very different expectations of how to proceed with the impending separation between them.  

Getting ready to “leave home” is a big deal for everyone. 

For the young person leaving, this departure can feel like saying goodbye to a lot of precious history stretched out behind them, and being challenged to prepare for more freedom and independence than she has known. 

For the parents being left, there is a lot to miss that they will never have again, the end of one family era and the beginning of another when their teenager grows more distant and they become more socially peripheral. Adolescence is bounded by two losses for parents: the separation from childhood at the beginning and the empty nest at the end. 

So how might parents wish for this late adolescent time together to be conducted? 

In honor of all they have given to and received from the young person, they may desire a close and cooperative and communicative, even celebratory, final time with their teenager at home who treasures this special together time as well. Contrast this to an adolescent expectation that parents will be reducing demands out of respect for her adjustment ahead. 

So, while the parents are looking fondly and sadly back and wanting a close affirmative time together, the adolescent often is looking anxiously ahead and wants parents to leave her more alone. 

Transition points in life are hotbeds for ambivalence – wanting and not wanting to let go of what is old and familiar, wanting and not wanting what is new and different. At this point, the young person may echo a memorable youthful statement about parents: “I don’t need them, except when I do.” So the young person wants it both ways – to be let go without interference, but also to be held onto with support when the need arises.  

Thus, in some cases, a mismatch can occur during the teenager’s senior year, that jumping off point when planning for some degree of leaving family is underway. At this delicate departure point, while parents are focused on the young person’s readiness and diminishing precious time with them at home, for the older teenager their needs and wellbeing may be the last thing in her thoughts. 

At a time when parents are struggling with impending loss and wishful of a sweet departure time together, the teenager is beset with concerns about moving on and can be more unavailable, impatient, and unmindful of them. While parents may want some last good time together, the teenager may want more time to be left alone. “I’ve got a lot on my mind!” And now there can be more bickering with each other. “We need to talk with you about your plans for what comes next!” “Not now! Can’t you see I’m busy?”  

Counseling with parents at this awkward juncture, a typical dialogue might sound something like this.

“He’s a senior in high school, and as the time for leaving home approaches, you’d think he’d make a special effort to be considerate of us. But no, he’s less respectful, less grateful, less sensitive, and has less desire to talk with us than ever. He can barely put up with us! Where did we go wrong?”

Then I ask a simple question. “I guess it’s hard seeing him treat everyone else like he does you – teachers at school, other adults, extended family — all having the same complaint?”

Now comes the telling response. “What are you talking about? He gets rave reviews everywhere. They love him! They all swear: he’s great to be around, a pleasure to talk to, wonderful to work with. Just not at home!”

“Congratulations!” I say. “The Eyes of the World don’t lie. It sounds like you’ve given him good preparation. This data tells you that at least he’s socially equipped to make his independent way.”

“Then why is he treating us, his parents, less well than them, particularly when our separation is so soon, after we’ve done so much for him?”

Yes, that’s the question. To start honoring this common dilemma, consider some possible explanations. 

Maybe the young person is socially starting to leave home while still living there to make the coming separation easier to bear. 

Maybe the young person alternately giving them static or silence is not meant to trouble them, but rather expresses his troubled state.   

Maybe the young person is distancing and dismissive with parents to mask un-readiness anxiety about leaving that she or he doesn’t want them to know.

Maybe by treating parents with an apparent lack of consideration, she or he is taking for granted that, no matter what, they will always be there with love and support.  

Maybe the young person is so intent on keeping their outside world together and preparing for the future that coming home, there’s not much effort left for parents.  

Maybe by disengaging from parents, the young person is trying to show he can live more independently of parents while still living at home. 

Maybe the young person is truly mixed about wanting and not wanting to leave home, and is acting out this discomfort with parents.

Maybe in the young person’s reluctance to leave, she or he is acting in unwelcome ways in the hopes parents will urge them out, even act happy to see them go.

Or maybe, the explanation I find most likely, the young person is so self-preoccupied at this major transition point that she or he is truly insensitive to what this hard time is like for parents and to their needs. 

Usually betting on this last explanation, I will suggest that parents ask for what they need.

“We know you have a lot on your mind right now, but we would love to have some good times with you before you leave and to be treated not as in your way but here to help you on your way at this challenging time. Can we talk about this?”