First-Semester Separation Tips for the Parents of College FreshmenAlyssa Abel
Summer break is here!
Young adults who’ve been away at college have spent the better part of a year growing and developing. They were dependent on you, but you didn't hear much from them or need to do much for them. Now you’ll have them back in the nest for a couple of months! You’ve been counting the days, hours and minutes.
Sometimes we should be careful what we wish for…
Our college students have gotten used to making their own decisions and keeping their own schedule. From September through May, we had no idea where they were at any given moment (and some of us were perfectly happy about that).
This means that, while we may have idyllic images of summer vacations and lazy weekends enjoying family time, we’d be wise to check our expectations. Remember winter break? We’re all adults now, but not yet equals (and it will likely be a few more years before our students acknowledge that we just might know what we’re talking about).
This may be the trickiest stage of parenting. Our students are legally adults but far from fully grown up. On the one hand, it may feel funny to restrict or discipline them, but when we are providing, well, everything, we should have a say in some things.
The best way to approach this is to sit down together (if possible, as soon as they’ve caught up on sleep and unpacked) and discuss expectations like adults. Though they may not be thrilled, it’s okay to set a few ground rules.
I’ve never established an official curfew, probably because I never had one myself. (I find it really depends on the event in question and how far they have to travel to get there.) Instead, I ask, “What time do you expect to be home?” If the time sounds reasonable I say, “Great. Have fun. Be safe.” If it’s later than I’d like, I’ll suggest another time and perhaps negotiate.
If frequent late nights become an issue, point out that some people still need to get up at dawn to go to work and that the noise made when they come in (or the fact that you can’t sleep until you know they’re home) disrupts rest. You can also let them know that, if their plans change and they don’t call or text to update, you worry. My daughter finally grasped this concept after her roommate stayed out all night once without giving her a head's up. She always called me after that.
Keep a family calendar and ask your student to put their work and social schedule on it. In our house, this is vital to keep track of who needs a car when (like many families, we have more drivers than cars). If you prepare family meals, it’s reasonable to want to know how many will be sitting down to eat them. In case of an unexpected event or emergency, knowing where they are can help you make snap decisions (for example, who is in closest proximity to the sibling needing a ride when a car breaks down) or alleviate concerns for their safety (say if there is a pile up on the highway).
Try to be aware of what they're doing. It’s possible they made a habit of drinking at parties at school. No matter your personal stance on underage drinking, continuing this habit over break can pose more danger because they’re more likely to be driving home afterwards. Don’t beat around the bush — talk openly with your student and make sure they understand the danger and where you stand on this issue. Studies show that the incidence of teen drinking spikes in June and December.
This may be an internship, summer job or volunteer position, or projects around the house. While there should be some time for relaxing, summer shouldn’t be a long Netflix binge.
They may need guidance in job seeking if they come home without plans (where to look, how to fill out an application and prepare for an interview, and how to be ready to take a position that's not super exciting in order to keep busy and bring in some cash). If they have too much free time, you can make suggestions (the garden needs weeding, the dog wants a walk, a younger sibling needs a ride; and there are always loads of places that need volunteer help), but it’s not your job to find ways to entertain them. A friend of mine has a house rule: everyone who lives under her roof should end the day with an interesting story to share at the dinner table.
Of course if there are things you want to do with your student, seize the moment and enjoy it! At this stage we realize these opportunities are fleeting.
Yes, you managed fine without them, but an extra person in the house results in more messes. Even though they’re no longer full-time residents, they’re not houseguests either. Since other family members have chores, they should as well. At the minimum, they should clean and pick up after themselves.
Maybe they “own” a category: yard work, pet care, car washing. They can learn to tune up the family bikes and fix flat tires, or shop for, prep and cook one or two dinners a week.
In college, they managed money just fine; there’s no reason they can’t do the same at home. The rule in our house from the time my kids were in high school is that, on days you’re going to be out, whenever possible pack a lunch. If they choose to buy lunch instead, they pay for it. When going out together, to the movies or for a quick bite, we sometimes let them pay for themselves or even on occasion pick up the tab.
Understand that they may not be able (or want) to attend every family get-together. Work and activities with their friends may be more important to them than Great Aunt Sally’s birthday party. Pick your battles. Talk to them about which events are important — maybe even non-negotiable in your eyes. Choose to let the rest go.
After your children have left the nest, their return can be a bit tough — for all of you. The space you share feels different somehow. They have changed, and so have you.
You’re establishing a new relationship: not quite equals, not quite friends, but very different from the parent-child dynamic that still existed when you dropped them off on campus last fall. Don't worry; you will find a new rhythm. And with patience, consideration and a whole lot of communication, this new relationship may be the best one of all.