Sarah Weir
July 23, 2014 6:26 am

Dear Sarah,

Things have gotten really tense with my mom and I’m hoping you can help. I’m 18 years old and will be entering my senior year of high school in the fall. That means, of course, I have to start the long, hard battle of applying to college. My mom has suddenly become really pushy about academics. It wasn’t like she didn’t care before, but she was more lenient and didn’t ask about my grades much. Now she’s pressuring me about college and I’m not even sure what I want to do. I’m scared to leave my boyfriend behind and she doesn’t get that.

I love my mom, but it seems like we fight about every little thing. I remember when my sister was my age and the same thing happened between them. Last semester, I felt depressed and my grades suffered—partially because things with my mom were such a mess. She’s been asking me to go to a psychologist when all I really want is for her to listen. Is there a better way to communicate besides shouting or should I just give up and think about moving out?

—Stressed and a Mess in Delaware

Dear Stressed,

It’s pretty common for more tension to arise between parents and kids the year or so before college. Separating is hard and scary for everybody, and sometimes we subconsciously create conflict and push each other away long before the inevitable goodbyes. It’s not a healthy way to deal with the sense of loss—and it can be hurtful—but you aren’t alone. Your mom is probably also concerned about you and your future but not articulating that to you in a clear or productive way.

So, let’s pause and take a deep breath. I don’t think you should give up and move out—but I do think you need help, both in figuring out what you want to do next year and how to turn around your communication with your mother. You simply aren’t experienced enough yet to figure out all this big stuff on your own. For starters, as soon as you get back to school, speak with your school guidance counselor (or a teacher you really respect) about what your academic options are. You can also call the school right away to see if someone is available to speak over the summer—that could help you feel more in control and less stressed. Maybe you don’t feel ready to go away to school (though I don’t think you should be planning around your boyfriend at this age). You could stay in your town and then transfer when you felt more confident or you could work part time and go to school part time—the point is, going to college doesn’t have to be a one-size-fits-all deal.

The harder issue is breaking out of this explosive dynamic with your mother. You can work at diffusing your own angry reactions as well as hers (here are some good guidelines), but when you are the kid, it’s tricky to be the one to try to calm the overall situation down. I TOTALLY know that when someone says, “You should see a psychologist” it can make you feel like they are saying “You are crazy!” BUT what she really means is, “I’m concerned and I’m not sure how to help.” And, I don’t think it’s a horrible idea—a good therapist can give you strategies for communicating more effectively and also just be a trustworthy, unbiased shoulder to cry on. They will also want to meet with your mom and should be able to help her as well.

You are brave to acknowledge that this is painful and you want to make things better—that’s the first step.

Love, Sarah

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