Parents and teenagers are excited to enter the new stage of their lives heading off to college. Not only is it exciting, but scary for parents and children. College is a time for the student to explore themselves, become an adult, spread their wings and gain independence; a time of emotional and physical growth. It is learning to let go for parents, allowing their child to make mistakes and decisions, building an adult relationship, and giving them tools to become an adult. It is normal for everyone to have an emotional rollercoaster of emotions – fear, anxiety, joy, relief, loneliness, and excitement. For them, leaving the nest for college liberating. With minimal breaks in between those months away, they are experiencing so many changes: new friends, new classes, new workload, new activities, domestic responsibilities, and FREEDOM. Kids are resilient and will find their way. Most college students love not having their parents hovering over them, reminding them of their chores, badgering to start schoolwork, the annoyance of siblings, curfews, and simple house rules. They have been living a life of come and go as they please, do as they want. But before you know it, and summer break begins – and your teenager is back home with rules, family life, and well less freedom and more restrictive.
When your child comes home, you are overly excited to have your “baby” home. However, that may not be the most overwhelming emotion your student is feeling. Commonly, they may feel a bit lost, a sense of “where do they belong?” Everyone will feel the family dynamics have changed. It is not easy to re-adapt to the life they always knew but with a different mindset. The truth is it is all about transition. The transitional phase of one foot out the door as an adult, and the other foot is still in the home as a child. How do you and your child make this work finding the happy medium, still being treated with respect as a parent, respecting house rules, and your job to empower and support them in their adult life?
I have some tips to ease your transition in your new family unit:
- Establish ground rules and expectations.
When the excitement wears down from their homecoming, sit down and talk adult to adult. Remember, the keyword is adult, not adult to child. It would be best if you consider your child has been on their own for several months. It is essential to establish house rules and expectations that are age-appropriate and showing you trust them to make the right decisions. For example, instead of a curfew, you want more of a “check-in” text or call. If they won’t be home for dinner, a courtesy call letting you know. It shows your kid you have faith in them to be respectful of the home environment. It will lessen worry and arguments. When they execute this respect, you as a parent will feel more confident in your child’s new life stage.
It would help if you conveyed that summer break is not a three-month-long party. Discuss the balance between fun and responsibility. Responsibilities are not solely about household chores; they also need a summer job or an internship. Perhaps give them a couple of weeks to reacclimate to family life, meet up with friends, and then set a timeline down for a job search. A job or internship introduces them to some financial independence and a taste of the world after college. Teach them some guidelines on balancing work, home, and social life throughout the summer. It is beneficial for their future when they officially leave the nest.
- Be mindful of other people living in the house.
Both parent and child must be mindful of each other’s wants and needs. Being considerate to one another is vital to maintain a healthy relationship. Even though there is no curfew per se, walking in at 3 am, making noise as if coming back to the dorm, is not considerate or mindful of other household members. We all know their summer is a time for friends, sun, fun, and entertainment. Parents should accommodate having their child’s friends over, whether for a party or just a gathering, and giving them the privacy to do so. To do this, the child should ask for permission out of respect and find an agreed-upon date and time instead of something spontaneous and unexpected. Be mindful of the rhythms of others in the family life and their routine. While the teenager is on break, others can be working, or siblings are still in school. Each needs to be sensitive to the other’s routine. More than likely, the teenager will be sleeping in late, while others are waking up early. Parents and siblings need to be just as considerate with noise as the teenager are when coming home late. It is mutual respect.
College doesn’t mean any chores. On the contrary, the student has more domesticated responsibilities living on campus than at home. Therefore, those same responsibilities should continue in the household and help with tasks around the house. If the parent was doing their laundry pre-college, they had to do their laundry during the school year; well, that needs to continue at home. While others in the home may still be working or finishing up school, taking some time during the day to tidy up, clean up dishes, take the trash out, cook a meal – the most straightforward task can make a world of difference in the home environment.
- Recognize the transition is difficult for your college student and be patient.
Your college student has only a short period to re-adjust back into the family dynamics and find their place while finding themselves as an adult. Try to be sensitive; they are working out their own inner emotions. One minute they want to be a full adult, and other times they want to be a kid and be comforted and cared for as a child. When your child leaves for college, it is a loss, a change, but something you expected. However, you may have never anticipated the intensity of the emotions. As a parent, life goes on and re-adjusting the home dynamics without your child. It can be cumbersome and emotional. It is your transition period. Some transition easily, others not so much. Rest assures it will fall into place.
Now in the eyes of your college student, they are not thinking of the changes; they are adapting to their new world. As the home has changed, they come back thinking things will fall into place right where they left off. It is a difficult time for them when they recognize the changes. It raises questions, “Where do I belong?”. They are not fully adjusted to college but still yearning for the nostalgia of a familiar place. Be prepared for resistance, expect arguments, anticipate them to pull away, finding their adult life while finding their place as a child and their new family unit. Find understanding it is not personal; this is their adjustment.
For any relationship, communication is essential for a strong foundation and healthy development. While they are away and upon their return, it’s vital they feel security they can talk to you about their life, trials, and tribulations. It is the time to develop an adult relationship with them. Communication isn’t easy, especially when you have a teenager who feels wholly liberated, and as we all know, “they think they know it all.” It is normal. You are no longer the parent of a younger child who needs physical and constant direction. I have a few communication tips to help you along:
- Stop talking – leave the door open for them to speak, and you listen. Do not jump the gun with a response. Your young adult may need just to let out their thoughts and hear themselves. Remember, they are coming to you to talk because they still need you, and you are their rock.
- Find alone time together – make time to spend alone outside the home, without siblings or other family members. Do new things you enjoy as an adult you usually wouldn’t do as a family unit, as if you are out with your friends. Bond and create new memories. You will truly love having an adult relationship with them.
- Now they are at an age where conversations do not need to be candy-coated or unspoken; ask questions. Be honest, be blunt, open the dialogue that it is OK to speak directly and freely without judgment. You will instill in them that you are there regardless and open-minded to discuss anything. Show unconditional love while giving support and guidance.
Suppose you feel you are having trouble reconnecting with your child or acclimating to them not physically being present. In that case, College Parent Central offers some great self-help resources to get you and your family through this transition. Remember, it is only temporary.
As I mentioned early on, when your child departs for college, it is a loss, and it is not always easy to accept your child isn’t a child anymore and adjust to the family dynamic. Our Associate Therapist, Caroline Brown, LMSW, sheds some light in her blog, “What Does it Mean Process Your Feelings?”. If you feel you are not moving on or adapting to the new change and cannot mentally focus or feel depressed, it may be time to seek individual therapy with a licensed clinical practitioner.