If you’re a parent of a high school graduate this spring, your brain is likely too filled with logistics and emotions to take much of a breath—but please pause for one second and listen to me. I’ve been there.
I’m both a parent and a young adult ministry expert. I’ve managed to graduate three children from high school and, as of this spring, three children from college. And I’m going to be honest with you …
High school graduation felt like it took me into the twilight zone.
This transition can be one of the strangest moments in life because that countdown clock (you know, the one that you see over every one of your kids’ heads, wondering how much time you have left to love them, coach them, guide them, educate them, set them up) seems to run exponentially faster.
You used to have years. Then you had months. Now it’s just weeks. Or even days.
The graduation countdown made me panic—every time.
The clock kept ticking, and while the countdown displaying single digits inspired me to have some last-minute conversations on pressing topics (because it’s never too late), I also realized that my “18-and-under parenting” was closing fast. There would be no last-minute parenting-cramming.
Graduation season is here.
This is it. Ready or not.
Maybe you can relate to that ticking clock and the sense that your parenting investment has timed out and your relationship with your kid is about to change. If you’re like me, you feel proud about some of your parenting moments while also living with some guilt, regret, or embarrassment over what you did (or didn’t do).
Maybe that’s why there are so many tears at graduation.
Parents, we can’t turn the clock back or negotiate for more time. We have to move forward, transitioning from pre-18 parenting to parenting young adults.
From our research at the Fuller Youth Institute, we’ve become more articulate and passionate about reminding parents that while you can’t re-do yesterday’s parenting, you play an essential role in your kids’ lives both today and tomorrow.
This is important to remember because we’ve seen some parents surprised that their parenting isn’t over when their child turns eighteen. Others see their emerging young adults as unprepared and can’t or won’t let go of their pre-18 parenting habits. And some parents give up because they think they’ve blown it with their kids and there’s little hope for a future relationship.
The great news is:
Your graduating kids still need you, but in new ways.
Your young adults are likely open to new and renewed relationships with you.
Your job is to treat every day as a new parenting opportunity—it’s never too early, and it’s never too late.
The key, then, is to consider how to be a parent in this new phase. Kara Powell’s and my book, Growing With, unpacks helpful ways to recognize that your child is transitioning from being a “learner” to an “explorer” and therefore needs you, as a parent, to invest in a new kind of relationship with them.
Parents can start by acknowledging and anticipating some crucial transitions young adults will experience, through which they will need you to offer new kinds of support.
The clock to graduation may have run down, but you have a new kind of time: post-graduation time.
And here’s some insider information: you don’t have to wait to start practicing your post-graduation parenting. You can acknowledge that the transition is already happening and start relating to your kids in new ways right now.
They need it. And so do you.
So where can you begin? Start with three reliable shifts your new young adults need that you can make right now.
Based on research, my goal was to inspire ministry leaders to see and support young adults in the ways that they need the most help. Particularly during graduation seasons, many well-meaning adults want to know what these inspired, newly emerging young adults will do with their lives. While this is a fair question, it is also asked of graduates too many times by too many people. Ask the question, “So what are you doing next?” And watch fatigue, panic, and even annoyance emerge through their body language as, once again, they feel pressure to report on their life status.
Transitional spaces feel unstable as young adults literally build their lives while living them. A lot is going on inside as they try to navigate this transition. Here’s where parents can resist defaulting to pre-graduation parenting and start post-graduation conversations. Begin by listening for clues about what your kids are processing.
So when you hear these phrases, try responding with some new phrases of your own.
Acknowledging young adults’ busyness can be an empowering first step. A young adult’s quest for purpose may flourish as you help them focus on their interests rather than on doing more. Parents, center your conversations on what they’re excited about, learning, or appreciate and resist making them report to you what they’re doing.
If you’re like me, you want the world to see how awesome your kid is. But mine have reminded me that I “have to think they’re awesome” because I’m their dad. So our affirmations don’t always carry the same weight! Yet they still need to be reminded of what we see in them. Sometimes young adults struggle because they don’t yet feel confident in their gifts or abilities. Remind them of the giftedness you see in them. Be specific by saying something like, “What I’ve always appreciated about you is the way you show compassion to your friends and strangers.”
Another question I love to ask my kids and my students is this: “What’s your gift to the world, and how are you developing it?”
When I talk with my kids, their friends, and my students, I’m learning that one sure way to shut down a conversation is to ask, “What are you doing these days?” A better question that acknowledges their process is, “What are you working toward?”
Young adults have more vocational options than previous generations. This can be exciting while also overwhelming. The great news for faith communities is that we can create opportunities to try out their gifts, process their options, and support their vocational decisions.
Parents can encourage their young adults to try using their gifts with others they trust—church, mentors, and family friends. Remind them that trying can bring clarity and possibility. Acknowledge their process. They’ll feel understood and may open up to share about more than just what they’re doing, but also who they’re becoming.
The countdown to graduation is real. We all experience it. Just know that parenting-investment-time doesn’t end at “zero.” Instead, a new clock emerges—one that lets you count the time you get as you journey with your young adults through their new seasons of significant transitions, new beginnings, and surprising possibilities. It’s a “count-up” clock.
Your graduating kids need you during this transition, but in new ways.
Listen carefully to their comments.
Seek to have new conversations that anticipate a new relationship and a new journey you’re on together.
Be there for your emerging young adults by hanging in there with them.
Will these tips keep you from crying at graduation? No chance. But parenting tears are the most beautiful kind—filled with pain, joy, sentiment, lament, and yes, hope.
While graduation signals that “countdown parenting” is waning, “count-up parenting” fuels our hope for our graduates, for our new parenting roles, and for our emerging relationships with them.
Lean in, parenting friends. I will too.
**Original article can be found on Fuller Youth Institute
Steve Argue, PhD, is the Applied Research Strategist for the Fuller Youth Institute (FYI) and Associate Professor of Youth, Family, and Culture at Fuller Theological Seminary. Steve researches, speaks, and writes on adolescent and emerging adult spirituality. He has served as a pastor, coaches and trains church leaders and volunteers, and has been invested in youth ministry conversation for over 20 years.