May 29th, 2009
10:00 AM ET

Graduating to adulthood

By Val Willingham
CNN Medical Producer

A year and a half ago, I wrote a blog about my daughter when she chose to spend Thanksgiving with a new boyfriend instead of her own family. To say the least, I was pretty upset. It was the first holiday she had been away from home and I went on and on about her decision and how - I felt - her brain just wasn't making the right choices.  I received an enormous  response to that blog– many of the responses came from college students who said I needed to "get a life." Other people, mostly parents, felt I needed to let her go.

A few weeks ago, my wonderful daughter graduated from college. It was a proud moment. Not only for her, but for her father and me. We had journeyed with her as she navigated her collegiate life for four years. It was up and down: changes in courses, majors, roommates and boyfriends. But she made it through, and with very few scars.

When she left home four years ago to attend Syracuse University, I thought it would be a difficult time for me because of separation anxiety and empty nest syndrome. But knowing she was in a campus environment made it easier. Certainly if there were problems, her roommates would call. If I couldn't find her, I could always dial her boyfriend or the dorm's resident assistant. She was never really alone.

But now that she's graduated, that's going to change. Because she is an independent soul and has no intentions of staying close to home, she'll be moving to a different city, where she'll set up a new life, with new friends, and new experiences. And that's freakin' me out.

According to Dr. Charles Raison, assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Emory University School of Medicine and CNNhealth.com’s mental health expert, the end of college signifies the end of my daughter's "childhood". And because she's my only child, letting go is even more difficult. But if I want to have a healthy relationship with her, letting her live her own life - with little intervention - is necessary.

But it is going to be tough.

No longer will I be able to call her just to check up on her. No more prying, inquiring about grades, friends, activities, etc. Sure, I can ask how she is, but if you think kids are closed-mouth in high school and college, just wait until they strike out on their own. I had a friend whose married daughter called her one day and told her that after five years of bliss she and her husband, my friend's son-in-law, had gotten a divorce. No note, no phone call to mom, until after the ink on the divorce papers was dry and ex-hubby was sent packing. What a shocker for my friend.

Psychologists will also tell you, it's all about control. And I am losing it. Even though she's head strong, our daughter has always listened to us. She may not have done what we asked all the time, but she listened; mostly out of love and respect for her parents. But we also held the purse strings: we paid for her phone, her car insurance, her tuition. Now, as a college grad - hopefully an employed grad - my husband and I will no longer have the financial upper hand. We will now be on a level playing field with her and that's going to take some getting use to. Now if she wants to fly to Paris for the weekend with a new beau, I can't put my foot down. That's her call, not mine - and it's driving me crazy.

Many family counselors point out, no matter how wonderful kids turn out, they never live up to their parents’ expectations. In college you hope they'll make the correct decisions and get it right. My child did, but not the way I thought she would. Did she chose the career path I thought she'd take? No. Did she end up with the boy I liked best? Ah, hardly. Is she pursuing the dreams I dreamed for her? Yes and no.

Child psychologists will say there comes a time when parents need to let go of their dreams for their children and live with the decisions their children make for themselves. That's the biggest part of letting go. And that's not so easy, either. It takes time. Parents can't look back and think “what if…” or “how come...” They need to embrace their children's accomplishments, their children's dreams, and move forward with them, all the while giving them love and support as they venture into a new phase of their lives. Once parents do this, they acknowledge their offspring as adults, not just as their sons or daughters. That's when parents can say they have finally let go.

So congratulations to my lovely daughter and all the young adults who have graduated this year! Here's to their happiness. May they be true to themselves and always have the support of a loving family.

Do you have a child who is graduating from college or high school? Are they going out on their own, joining the service, getting married? How are you adjusting to the idea? We'd like to hear from you.

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