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Family Life

How to Keep Your Sanity If Your Student Is Living at Home This Summer

Shari Bender

The texts are flying at 8:58 a.m. Joe, my 19-year-old college sophomore, begins: Have you seen my laptop?

Begrudgingly, I glance up from my own computer and look around the kitchen (aka my remote “office”). Across the room I spot Kris Jenner and other assorted colorful laptop stickers.

8:59 a.m., I enter Joe’s bedroom and the sound of the door opening sends the cat scrambling. The laptop handoff goes smoothly. Joe flashes his best smile and says thanks. As I exit, Joe asks ever-so-sweetly, “Could you bring me some orange juice for class?”

I roll my eyes. Then promptly get the orange juice.

Sound familiar?

This behavior is not limited to my college student. My grad student also spent more than a month at home over the winter holidays and I would get a text in the middle of a lecture: Mom could you possibly bring me decaf?

Truthfully, most of the time I’m happy to oblige. It’s weird but comforting to have my empty nest full again. Maybe you can relate if your college student has been spending larger chunks of time at home because of online classes.

But like me you’ve probably also observed that the pandemic can work against the natural order of things. Just as our kids are trying to spread their wings, campus closures and safety restrictions are creating obstacles on their path to independence.

Last summer provided its own unique challenges. Joe’s normal teenage angst was magnified by my heightened parental worry over the real and looming threat of COVID-19. When his internship dried up, he got a job as a DoorDash driver and went Dashing often — a way to make money but also to escape the anxiety-ridden woman at home who could be, in his words, a bit of a tyrant.

It’s only temporary, we kept telling ourselves, so fights and discord were usually short-lived.

Now it will be summer 2021 and Joe will have his perfect internship, the world will be vaccinated and all is smooth sailing. Yeah right.

If almost 24 years of parenting has taught me anything, it’s that I need to buckle up through every life stage and be prepared for the unexpected.

So, how can I prepare myself for THIS summer? My son will be turning 20 and craving independence, adventure and growth away from the watchful and sometimes overbearing eyes of Mama. But the fact is, even though he’s an adult, I am often reminded by his actions that the prefrontal cortex — the main part of the brain used for planning, impulse control and complex reasoning — will not be fully developed until age 25. That, along with my own need for just a bit of empty nest freedom, could be a recipe for parent-child clashes of epic proportions.

In an effort to survive the summer with sanity somewhat intact, here are four ways to set boundaries and make the best of your full nest:

1. Set ground rules, in writing.

Do you expect your student to be home for dinner certain nights of the week? Are there chores they’re required to do as part of the household?

And what do they expect of you? Remember to listen to your kid. You may want complete quiet after 10 p.m., but your night owl may need a later time frame. Be prepared to listen and negotiate. Your house, your rules, of course, but your student is now a young adult whose needs and preferences deserve a hearing.

Write down the rules you agree upon and send via text and email so there are no misunderstandings. Post the rules in the kitchen for all to see.

2. Set time aside for YOU.

How many times have we altered our own plans because "the kids are home"? Makes sense for a school break or over the holidays, but when “kids home” drags on to the “kids always home,” it’s time for us to prioritize our social time as well.

Maybe it’s a date night with your partner — whether that’s a movie at home together (with no one else on the couch or in earshot) or a dinner out. Maybe it’s an impromptu fire pit happy hour with your peeps.

Remember, you no longer have to work your life around the children at all times. You’re allowed to have your own friends and sphere.

3. Set aside special family time, too.

Sometimes we get so caught up in the day-to-day that we neglect the relationships right in front of us. Nurture your new and evolving relationship with your student. Find a new show to binge watch. Play a new game — my 23-year-old brought home Codenames and we loved it. Dust off a puzzle or play cards.

4. Get extra support if you need it.

For you, your student or both. The old adage is true: This too shall pass. But in the meantime, mental health struggles are at an all-time high. Students can feel isolated or may be dealing with anxiety even if they’re living with family or friends. Counselors, therapists and life coaches are easy to connect with online including through the college’s counseling center website.

2020–21 has been topsy-turvy and altered our lives in profound ways. But we are not alone. We can have each other’s backs. Hang in there, just a little longer. Summer’s coming! Let’s make it a bright new season of balance, harmony and optimism.

Shari earned her BA in Communication from Stanford University and freelances all things Communication and Marketing. She is a cat-loving spiritual vegan and former admissions interviewer. With two grown children, Shari is happily and sentimentally embracing her Empty Nest along with her husband of nearly 30 years. Her musings delight parents in numerous publications and online platforms, including CollegiateParent and Grown & Flown.
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