My student (they/them pronouns) is a junior who decided partway into the semester to take a leave of absence from school for mental health reasons. The school is 1,000 miles away and I flew out for a week to help get the MLOA process started. We had some good talks and made some progress but I left with a lot still undone (mainly, starting therapy and getting a diagnosis — most likely depression, possibly severe).
They don't want to come home, and their dad and I want to support their desire to continue living with their friends off campus. They have things in place in their life that they feel good about (a fitness routine, creative endeavors). But I am super worried, and it's so hard to judge this stuff from a distance. How do I know when/if I should hop on a plane again? Or when/if we should insist that they come home?
You are already doing all the right things: honoring their pronouns, helping with the MLOA process then stepping away, and truly listening to what they’re saying they need. It sounds like you have a solid and honest way of communicating with them. Beautiful.
Which to me also says that you have raised someone who values themselves enough to make really hard decisions that serve them well, and who has enough confidence in you to bring you in when they’re feeling vulnerable.
No matter what they go through as they become adults, those wonderful characteristics — self-value, confidence, openness — are in there. Watching them struggle makes it easy to think all that good stuff has disappeared, but it hasn’t.
A thousand miles is a lot for the imagination to wander through. The regular silences of not having daily contact with your child as they become more and more their own person and less and less your child are readily filled with worry.
Worrying, though, is like praying for what you don’t want (I borrow this pithy concept from the awesome Jen Sincero). If you can steer your thoughts back to the knowledge of that fantastic person you’ve helped create who is out there working on building a life, you might find some joy and pleasure instead of worry. It takes effort to shift those thoughts.
How do you know when or if you should hop on a plane? When you offer and they say yes. But pay attention to whether your offer comes from worry (and is more about trying to manage your own justifiable anxieties about their wellbeing) or if there are things that have changed for them. Have they stopped participating in the good things in their life that you mentioned they’d put in place? Are they making progress towards finding professional help, or has that stalled or been abandoned? If you see things deteriorating, make the offer to come help, and make it clear it’s not to kidnap them back to their childhood. Be prepared to step in and also step away, as you’ve done already.
When should you insist that they come home? I don’t know about you, but I stopped having the ability to insist on anything when my son left for college. Insisting is only possible when you actually have the power and authority to take control. After they turn 18, your power, authority and ability to control are illusory.
Besides, from how you’ve described the lovely way you supported and helped facilitate the MLOA process, and your light touch in standing by with love as your child struggles, insistence seems antithetical to your parenting style. You also seem to truly respect your child and their decisions, so insistence would only diminish them.
There is nothing I have experienced in my own life as painful as witnessing my son or step-son’s pain. There is no greater pain of parenting than being helpless. But one thing they have taught me is that my pain (about their pain), my anxiety (about their anxieties), my worry (about their worries) is a burden I can choose not to place on them. Having that one choice amidst all of the helplessness has allowed me to give them space when they need it.
It also has helped me to step back with the knowledge that they have people (who aren’t me) to go to with some of their struggles; knowing they have people helps ease my distress. And I have someone to talk to (who isn’t them) about my distress. This allows me to rise up, encourage, believe in, and guide them with less of my own stuff in the way.
And whaddaya know... the more mature and independent they become, the more I see them looking after themselves, and the more I can meet them where they are with an uncluttered (not anxious, not distressed) and open heart.
From what I can tell, you are right there already, so keep doing what you’re doing.