By Dr. Michael Oberschneider, Ashburn Psychological & Psychiatric Services
Sharing the nest again and navigating how to function as a family when your son or daughter returns home from college can be challenging. Sure, your child will always be your child, and you may believe that you still know what’s best for them as mom and dad, but with every semester or quarter that passes, they’re aging and separating from you.
From freshman to senior year of college, your kids are taking the steps they need to take to become more independent as they enter young adulthood.
At college, your son or daughter eats and sleeps when they want, socialize how they choose, and they’re tasked to care for themselves entirely — getting to classes, doing their schoolwork, managing their own living space, doing their laundry, etc.
While you may not like some of their decisions, there’s little you can do to control or enforce most of these moments from afar.
There’s no doubt that parenting is much easier in a lot of ways when our children are younger, and we as parents can simply sit in the director’s chair and direct. However, as our children age out of childhood and into young adulthood, parenting becomes more complex, and managing priorities should become more shared and inclusive.
You can simply tell your 20-year-old son to do something, but having that 20-year-old appreciate and understand what’s behind your request and why you want or need their help will serve to support their continued growth toward a solid adult self.
I call the college years of development the push-pull years. In one moment, your child will not want your help and may even demand that you leave them alone, and where in the very next moment, they’ll be dependent on you for all the answers.
Here are four tips to consider when your child returns from college:
Give Them a Week to Decompress & Enjoy
Hard work should be rewarded. Assuming that your son and daughter did their best, they deserve a break. After all of that studying, after all those tests and papers, after having to live in a tiny space with a roommate, and after having to manage the ups and downs of independent living and social life, coming home can be gratifying.
For the first week, let your child enjoy their success and let them rest as they choose. Maybe make their favorite dinner or dessert, allow them to binge on TV and video games, and let it happen if they want to stay out late to connect with high school friends.
Have a Conversation
If you want your son or daughter to manage your expectations when they return home this summer, sitting down and talking with them and getting their buy-in is a great place to start.
The conversation shouldn’t be negative, but rather positive and upbeat. Start by focusing on the good; how proud you are of them; how happy you are that they are home. Then, when it comes to expectations, emphasize why you’d like them to do certain things, and discuss those things in the context of where they are in life and how what you’re expecting is age-appropriate and good.
Openly discussing the importance of your son or daughter having a job, having a consistent sleep schedule, helping at home, and keeping their space clean as a young adult, is a lot better than simply telling them what to do.
So, if your son or daughter sees things differently or gives you pushback on certain topics or requests, listen well, and try to appreciate where they’re coming from. Keep in mind that you may need to find a compromise on certain topics, but if the compromises are reasonable and your son or daughter is responsible, then see that as a win-win.
For example, if you want your daughter in at a certain time, and she wants to stay out for an extra hour, but she can then get up for work the following day, that’s fine. However, she’ll learn that staying out too late on a work night probably isn’t wise when she’s tired the next day.
Have a Plan With Ground Rules
Sure, your child is older now, and you want to support them as much as possible toward becoming more independent, but you’re still their parent. Certain things may not be negotiable for you, and it’s important they understand what exactly those things are.
If getting a summer job is an expectation you have of your son or daughter, let them know that as soon as possible. If you’d like your son or daughter to have a balanced week, discuss what balance looks like and create a plan for that to happen.
Addressing difficult topics right away is also important. For example, your child might party at college, but is drinking alcohol or using cannabis something you want them to do at home? Every family is unique, and while some parents are more liberal than others regarding substance use, I strongly advise against condoning any substance use at home. First, it’s illegal. Second, it’s not good for them. Third, messaging that substance use is fine isn’t going to help them succeed in life.
When it comes to substance use, discussing your reasoning and concerns and not simply saying “no” is a teachable moment for your child. If they are out and they do choose to imbibe, having an agreement on what they should do (e.g., staying where they are, not driving, or asking for your help) is also a must.
Similar to alcohol or drug use, your son or daughter may think it’s perfectly fine to have their girlfriend or boyfriend from a college visit, but if overnights aren’t okay with you, discuss why.
Have Fun & Be Productive
Returning home for the summer should be fun and productive for your son or daughter, and finding a balance between both will require good communication and effort.
While you may think your child needs you less now because they’re older, learning how to become fully independent is a process, and they will need you to help them navigate the terrain of young adulthood. Our children — younger and older — are always watching us and learning. They’re taking in what you say and do. These years pass by fast, so enjoy the time you have together.
Here’s to a great summer!