School’s Out For Summer

My mom tells a funny story that when I was home during a summer break from college, she heard the dryer going at 5am when she got up to exercise before work and wondered why it was even on. Was the dryer mysteriously going on by itself? Would it start a fire? Then, she realized that it was because I had likely been up late into the wee hours of the morning doing laundry. 

Source: Pixabay/public domain

I was going to bed as my parents were waking up; I was eating breakfast when my parents were thinking about lunch, and I was headed out with friends when my parents were going to bed.

At that time, that schedule felt perfectly normal to me. It mirrored how I was living my life at college. And, I was doing well in my classes, was very involved on campus, and had dear friends, so these scheduling idiosyncrasies did not seem problematic. That is, until I was back home with my parents. Apparently, and really unintentionally, I threw the house—and my relationship with my parents—into a topsy turvy mess.

Now, as a professor, I routinely sit in my office with students, listening as they lament their impending move home for the summer. They share concerns as to how much they will be judged by their parents for various things, they worry about restrictions imposed on their daily lives and they express concern that their parents could withhold certain things like tuition or spending money if they make decisions that are not in keeping with their parents’ wishes. And as a woman in her mid-forties with plenty of friends anticipating their college-age children returning home, I am hearing concerns on the other side. 

What’s interesting is that there’s a pattern—essentially, everyone is saying a version of the same thing. These become conversations in which I am walking a tightrope, trying to illuminate for one set of people what the other side feels. So, encapsulated here, I am outlining the top concerns with some secrets that may help to make this summer the easy and carefree stretch of time that we all need and want it to be.

1) College kids present a blend of the shadows of an immature, self-centered-child self and the anticipation of a fully-developed-adult self, and this presents more tension when thrust back into the childhood home. The clear social and emotional growth point of college is for students to individuate from their families of origin. So by extension, students will function better at home when parents respect their adult child’s privacy and refrain from babying.  At college, students are regularly making decisions on their own, some of which would thoroughly aggravate and upset their parents, but once back at home, students still need the practice of making their own decisions, living with the consequences of them, and advocating for themselves.

2) Of course, one of the biggest challenges to having adult children back at home is the basic issue of day-to-day scheduling and an invocation of daily manners. This is where it is good to sit down face to face and have a real exchange about expectations around things like: time with friends, curfews, sleeping in, work schedules, household chores, car sharing, meals, technology use, and family trips. College students need to remember how their behavior impacts others. In the evenings or if your children are traveling with friends, you might agree to have your student check in with you at agreed upon time intervals to let you know s/he is safe. Resist the urge to call and check in often.

3) You might face particular challenges if your college age children return home to a house with much younger siblings. Adult children are used to a level of freely coming and going at college that simply would not apply to a twelve year old for example, and it becomes much easier for parents to sympathize with, and side with, the younger children or to expect that older children can step in and shuttle younger children around or modify their social lives to accommodate their younger siblings. In reality, the adult children require compassion as well for trying to juggle multiple demands of different sorts of life experiences. 

4) Like with the logistical issues involved in scheduling, money raises all sorts of issues on a practical level. Students are generally well served to have a paid job in the summer from which they can obtain some summer spending money and quite possibly money for returning to school in the fall. But, as a professor, I am aware that the research shows that students who have had at least one internship experience during their college years will fare better when seeking employment after graduation. Some students are able to find paid internships but it is far more likely these experiences will be unpaid or will come with very little compensation. Parents often need to be sensitive to this dimension, understanding that the internship is not fluff but may be just the key to open up doors to paid employment for the future and can be a springboard for their adult children to talk to adults in fields that interest them, shadow people, etc.

5) The gift of a successful college experience is that students can be exposed to worlds they never knew existed and then try some of these ideas and sensibilities on for size. Students may come home declaring they are suddenly vegan, rejecting religion or embracing it, changing their political views, doing wild things to their bodies in the form of tattoos and piercings, they may have colored their hair a trendy shade of blue or purple, are newly inhabiting interracial, interfaith, or cross-cultural relationships, perhaps with a newfound desire to study abroad in the country of origin of the dating partner, or they may come out as gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender. The trick for parents to remember is that some of these attitudes and behaviors stick and some don’t, so it is really not worth getting overly hung up on, attached to, and critical of every preference, style choice, and identity pivot or shift.

Parents would be well served to think back on their children when they were very little to remember how some core qualities, interests and choices have remained intact throughout the years and how some things change. My advice to parents is always: be curious as to who your children are becoming and cut them some slack as they spin around and twirl out new ideas and identities. In the same way parents were likely interested and entertained by their infant’s expressions, their toddler’s new words and gestures, or their school age child’s curiosity about a new idea at school, parents are well-served by bringing this same spirit of curiosity to interactions with their adult children.

6) Parents, and especially mothers, who may have perhaps overly directed some of their time and intellectual and emotional energy into their child’s lives may then encounter the most difficulty getting used to the shifts in their adult child’s new priorities and desire to spend less and less time with the family; it may feel like rejection of a sacred space that the mother nurtured for a long time. Many mothers report a level of depression akin to post-partum depression. Without a doubt, the college transition shifts family dynamics. This is perfectly normal.

7) It’s natural for parents, relatives, and family friends to ask students a barrage of questions about the college experience that may include how much s/he likes the college s/he chose, his or her intended major and/or minor, grades earned so far this term, potential for study abroad, choices related to joining in on Greek life, thoughts of staying on or dropping off of an athletic team, career goals and other questions about post-graduation. After awhile, this can feel like an inquisition. 

Also, students express fears of being judged, misunderstood, and alienated by their parents for experiencing emotional turmoil. Students whose parents were aware of struggles that they faced in high school such as depression, anxiety, drinking and self harm, are particularly reticent to let their parents know of any ongoing issues and struggles. Similarly students whose parents were unaware of issues in high school are especially concerned about worrying their parents and tend to be protective of their parents. Other students claim to not want to tell their parents for fear that the parents will not understand them, will force them to get outside help that they don’t want, or prevent them from getting help that they know that they do want and are not sure their parents will support it. It is best for parents to consider what their adult children are trying to open up about and then truly listen. 

8) If your kid already longs to go back to college, this is reason to celebrate! Remember the anguished junior and senior years of high school, weighing the pros and cons of various colleges and touring different places? Wanting to get back to college means students chose a place they actually like and can call home and are engaged in crafting a vibrant life for themselves.

In a nutshell, try to remember that you raised your children to eventually go off and become independent, that they are usually doing exactly what they are supposed to be doing in that regard, to relish in this cool new adult you occasionally get to hang out with, and to cut the kids—and yourselves—some much needed slack.

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