Three short months ago, you dropped off your firstborn at college. You were excited for him or her, perhaps a little envious of this new adventure and anxious about how the new student would do facing all the trials ahead.
But now Thanksgiving will soon be upon us, and with that comes a variety of new challenges for your family to navigate. You envision a long holiday weekend catching up with your child about the past few months. Your student envisions catching up with friends, Netflix and sleep. You imagine a Thanksgiving table where you’re feasting on your child’s exploits, but said child just is interested in feasting on your home-cooking.
Dr. Lisa Farkas, an instructor in the Psychology Department at Rowan University, has some suggestions to help make the transition smoother. Farkas is a licensed psychologist who earned a doctorate in clinical psychology from Wright State University and has spent close to three decades working with young adults, children, adolescents and families.
She said, “For many families, the first time their children return for an extended stay at home can result in new conflicts and struggles to be resolved. Until they left for school in August, they had probably never lived independently. They were aware of household rules and expectations. Once they moved into their dorm they were free to live their life in any way they chose. They met new people with values and opinions different from the ones with which they were raised. Perhaps some of these new ideas resonated with them, and they are eager to share their thoughts with you now. This period of emerging adulthood is an exciting time.”
She noted that these young adults are beginning to separate (both physically and emotionally) from their family of origin, which is a healthy step towards independence. “Some parents experience this as a loss, but it should really be celebrated for what it is: a job well-done,” she said. “You provided an environment for your son or daughter to grow and thrive and face the world as an independent adult.”
However, that doesn’t mean there won’t be struggles during this time. So what situations might you encounter, what should you do, and what should your young adult child do? Here’s a list of common issues that occur once families are reunited after a first semester of college:
ISSUE #1: You had set reasonable limits for your child when he was younger, including limiting screen time and giving him a curfew. He hasn’t had those limits in months, and his will likely balk at “being treated like a child.”
ISSUE # 2: You are incredibly excited to spend a lot of time with your daughter during the holiday weekend and made plans to include distant relatives and arranged for a lot of family time. She is annoyed with you because she made plans to spend time with her high school friends she’s missed for months.
ISSUE #3: You assume that your daughter will fall immediately back into the routine of doing chores, going to religious services, being home for family meals and generally falling right back into the pattern of pre-college family life. She is now used to managing her own time and prioritizing what she’s like to do and when she’d like to do it. Your expectations and hers may not match.
ISSUE #4: You desperately want to know how your son is doing academically and socially. You want to know if he’s attended parties and is keeping up on his assignments. You’re curious, and he wants to establish boundaries.
ISSUE #5: Your son has announced that after meeting “so many cool people at college” he is now identifying as a vegan, an atheist, a Democrat, a Republican, an “anything you are not and disapprove of.”
So what are some guidelines to follow in order to successfully navigate through this adjustment period? Farkas said:
The most important thing to remember is that you love one another, and your child’s process of becoming an independent adult is just another developmental milestone like learning to walk or going through puberty. Communication, consideration, and compromise are the keys to navigating the issues that arise during this time. Does he need to have a curfew at 18? Probably not. Does she need to text you and let you know where she is and where she’ll be spending the night so you can sleep? Yes, because different environments might require different behaviors. Perhaps she doesn’t have a car at school so you don’t have to worry about her driving under the influence. At home, this could be a concern. Or maybe you just need to know that the family car she borrowed for the evening will be back in time for another family member to use it to get to work.
Does he have to attend all family gatherings, religious services and meals? Again, compromise. No one likes being told he HAS TO do something, but discuss why it’s important to you and let him choose the activities in which he’d like to participate while also allowing him time with friends.
Feel free to ask them about academics, social life and new identities. But remember that you’ve already established a history on these things. If you haven’t had an open dialogue with your child in the past, it may seem new and she may be a bit hesitant to share her experiences now. Listen to her ideas and experiences respectfully and without being disparaging. She may be in a period of exploration or she may truly have come to a conclusion about what’s right for herself. You don’t have to agree -- nor do you have to change your own behaviors and beliefs to accommodate hers. But you do need to let her make these choices for herself.
“There is great joy in seeing your child become a competent, independent and self-sufficient young adult. Parents may take pride in the fact that they provided a solid foundation for their children to build their own lives and accomplish their goals, while living a life true to themselves. It’s a great feeling of accomplishment when you’ve raised that child to adulthood and you can now add him or her to a list of people you’d call friends,” Farkas said.