Book Review: The Launching Years

The Launching Years: Strategies for Parenting from Senior Year to College Life by Laura S. Kastner, Ph.D., and Jennifer Wyatt, Ph.D.

On the heels of reading College Together (see earlier review) I picked up The Launching Years, which concerns itself with the transition from senior year to college. It makes an ideal companion to the first book, and I recommend both to anxious parents and counselors counseling them. Although the college process is the backbone of the book, its flesh and blood are observations about the changing relationship between teens and their parents during the last years of high school and the first years of college. For any parent anticipating with joy and fear the “launching” of a soon-to-be adult, this book provides perspective and reassurance. High school counselors can find some comfort in knowing more about how the college process adds to the normal stress of adolescence and why parents might tend to be pricklier than usual right around senior year.

Using a combination of clinical experience and anecdotal evidence, Kastner and Wyatt clearly limn the many factors surrounding the “launch” of a child into the world beyond the family. Specifics alternate with broader views, as in the introduction: “During a two-year period beginning with the senior year of high school, most parents find themselves confounded by unanticipated challenges. ‘Why are my daughter and I fighting like cats and dogs now that she’s about to leave?’ a mother might ask.” The broader view applies: “Vastly underrated as a complicated transition for parents and children alike, the launching years rival any two years of parenting for the formidable events they contain, the challenges and questions they raise, and their sheer emotional intensity.” This balance of illustration with an encompassing wider vision makes the book accessible to everyone; its non-judgmental stance helps every reader see beyond immediate concerns to the more complex issues surrounding adolescent development.

College counselors will be pleased that the book endorses ideas of “fit” and student-centeredness in the college process. One particularly telling passage encapsulates what many of us try to communicate to our parents: “Think of the college decision as an identity decision. Throughout adolescence, young people are slowly forming and ‘jelling,’ a process shaping who they are, the experiences they pursue, the values they embrace, and where their passions lie–what they’ll stay up after midnight to complete and what leaves them cold.” The authors suggest that for parents to better understand their child at this point, relative to the college process, they might “pull out their child’s school records to review messages teachers have been sending about their child as a student….Your child’s record will tell you what’s reasonable to expect.” This exercise grounds parents’ expectations and feelings about their child in external realities that can moderate unreasonable or overbearing desires. It can also enable parents to step back and see their children afresh, a significant step in successfully “launching” them. Not coincidentally, it can also relieve the counselor of seeming like an obstructionist if the parents’ desires and the student’s accomplishments don’t match.

The book takes us through the buildup to college and through the year or so that follows. It makes clear that the relationship between young person and parents is changing, and that it takes some careful self-examination on the parents’ part to understand and accept that. Particularly interesting is that Kastner and Wyatt acknowledge the emotional events on both sides of the equation: the child who becomes hostile because she’s afraid to leave and the parent who becomes distant because he doesn’t know how to accept the fact. College counselors will be glad to hear that they also address the issues of maintaining boundaries head on: “The ultimate challenge for many parents during the application process…is to establish firm boundaries between parents’ personal feelings and responsibilities and those of the senior. Parents would be wise to deal directly with their own anxiety and to limit ‘leaking’ that can burden the senior’s own load, which is probably overwhelming, although rarely verbalized as such.”

By focusing on the family dynamic rather than the senior alone, the authors humanize the college process, providing clear, accessible descriptions of the various phases that the participants encounter as a child prepares to enter the world. The book’s observations are often amusing and revelatory even if the situations themselves are common. One section notes that “parents contract senioritis, too.” “The compulsion is for parents to work overtime to put finishing touches on their children before leaving home. The more their child displays the symptoms of senioritis, the more parents harp, wondering whether their child is ready to leave at all.” After all, their parenting skills are on the line.

The second half of the book deals with the first year of college, discussing how to parent from afar, including how to deal with the “dump” phone call (“I hate everything…”) and other issues related to fear of the unknown, loneliness, and so on. Also revealing is the chapter about when the fledgling returns to the nest after having been at college. What rules and roles are still relevant? What has to be modified? Can your college student bring home a boy/girlfriend and insist on sleeping in the same bed? What about curfews? It also talks frankly about issues like binge drinking and sexual activity in college, urging parents to be firm in their values while acknowledging their children’s development of their own values. The idea now is not simply to impose or dictate, but to make parental expectations clear while leaving room for the adolescent to make his or her own decisions. This is a tough line to walk, but the book does a good job illuminating it. One passage sums up the aspects of freshman year that parents have to think about developmentally: “Many young people do an about-face in college. Teens who distanced [themselves] from parents in an exuberant way in high school may seek greater closeness; those who were under their parents’ wings may push away. Whatever new trend emerges probably reflects their developmental needs, along with issues presented by the college setting.”

Written for the lay person and appropriate for counselors and parents alike, The Launching Years provides plenty to think about and discuss. Its refusal to judge behaviors while outlining them clearly is one of its strengths. Kastner is a clinical associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the University of Washington who has lectured on adolescence and family behavior. Wyatt, a Seattle-based writer, has written numerous parenting articles. They have also collaborated on another book, The Seven Year Stretch: How Families Work Together to Grow Through Adolescence. By recognizing that everyone has a stake in the maturing process, they’ve provided a clear understanding of how everyone can also benefit from its sometimes troublesome phases.