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"Mom, Dad, I Don't Want to Go Back"

Deborah Porter

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July is always the magic month for parents of college students. Shopping lists, blue bags, transportation, meal plan changes and more usually happen now for returning college students.

But what if your college student just broke the news that they don’t want to return to campus in the fall?

Just reading that made some of you break out in a cold sweat. There are so many different ways that conversation can go. (If you’ve been there, comment below and let us know how it went for your family — or share your story in CollegiateParent's Facebook group.)

Consider this: Many students did very well with virtual and online education and they may be anxious about returning to campus life and learning with all the pressure to choose the right professors, create a schedule that works, and actually show up to class in person.

For other students, anxiety may spring from the fact that going back to campus will be like starting all over again with making friends, meeting new roommates and all the other “firsts” that happened freshman year.

Because of the pandemic, some study abroad programs have been put on hold or canceled and that may impact what your student’s course of study was supposed to look like this fall.

Still other students are recognizing that college was never really their choice to begin with and was more the expected thing to do. Being home for many months may be shining a light on that right now and they're just getting up the nerve to actually say it.

Then there are those students who are looking at the job market — perhaps they’ve been offered a cool position and it doesn't require them to have finished their degree. They'd rather work than study.

If any of these scenarios sound familiar, and you need a little support around how to handle this conversation, let me give you a few things to consider BEFORE responding.

  1. Ask for clarity. We may be thinking they want to drop out; they may be saying I need a break. This is the moment to “talk less, smile more" (shameless nod to the musical Hamilton).
  2. Ask probing questions. And be comfortable with the fact that your student may not have the answer yet. The idea here is to get them thinking about the “why.”
  3. Remember that ultimately it is their life and their decision. However, they have to know how this decision impacts the family.
  4. Consider the impact on finances. If your student has any scholarships, it is imperative to find out how time away from the university will impact the scholarship if and when they plan to return.
  5. Don’t solve it. As parents, we are great at saying, “Do this or look here.” This is not that moment. The goal is to hear your student out and prompt them to think this through.
  6. Always ask, “So what’s your plan?” Many times, our students have an idea but have not thought through an actual, doable, viable plan. This is a moment when a plan is necessary.
  7. Whatever they decide, don’t take it personally. Again, this is less about you and all about them and what they want or need right now.

The other important component to this conversation is your student’s mental health. I mentioned how some students did very well with online learning. For some of them, the anxiety that comes with the unpredictability of college life was all but eliminated. Hurrying that child back to campus could be problematic. However, there are always opportunities for compromise. If your student’s campus is nearby, perhaps they can become a commuter and live at home. They might look into transferring closer to home or to another location and university altogether, especially if there is a change of major or another reason their initial school choice is no longer a fit. Another thing to consider: more frequent visits home or visits from the people at home. We’ve had a lot of togetherness going on and it’s been great for families of all ages and sizes. Some students may feel they still need the added support and encouragement that being at home provided them.

Then there are the students who did not do well with online learning, and for whom the past pandemic year has brought mental health challenges they're still working through. Students who struggled may need more time to recover their balance and motivation before returning to full-time college life.

The one thing we can know for certain is that the story behind those words “I don't want to go back” is different for each student. Restrain your understandable knee jerk reaction and choose to dive into it with your student. And remember, it’s not a one-time conversation. There will probably be a need to pause and revisit the subject in a few days after they have some time to digest the questions and concerns you've expressed.

Whatever the final decision, remember this: they still need your love and encouragement, probably more so than ever. As our students continue to mature and make more and more life decisions that we may not agree with, offering them unconditional love can be a great confidence builder.

And finally, if the choice they make doesn’t pan out like they thought, never, ever follow it with an “I told you so” of any kind. That only solidifies any tendency they may have to second guess themselves. Instead, talk about what they learned as a result of making that decision and peek into what they would do differently in the future.

If mistakes are to be made, they have many years to rebound at this age. Let’s step back and give them room to test out their wings. We may all be surprised at how well they soar.

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Deborah Porter is The Ultimate Mom Coach — a life balance coach for dedicated moms who need home management systems and a self-care routine that goes beyond a good mani/pedi. She and her husband have three adult children and she believes that the woman you were before having kids still matters. Deborah is a regular contributor to "Virginia This Morning" on WTVR. Download her free ebook, "7 Habits of Confident Moms"!
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