How to survive extended college breaks
Shane G. Owens, Ph.D., ABPP
Your child has returned home for a few weeks. You are overjoyed to have her back, until you realize she’s completely unrecognizable, obstinate, incorrigible … independent. She scoffs at your invitation to decorate the Christmas Tree. She is present for the lighting of the Menorah, but doesn’t look up from her phone. She “lost” the pajamas that match those you gave the rest of the family. You don’t bother trying to take a family photo that includes her.
You find yourself asking, “How much longer do I have to put up with this?”
Just as you’re telling yourself, “This is fine. We’ll get through this. I love her and I know she loves me,” she starts attacking the values you’ve worked so hard to instill in her, the ones that made you successful enough to be able to send her to school.
You question the wisdom in paying a fortune to that [blank]ing place that has turned your kid into a raging [blank].
Sit back. Relax. This is all completely normal.
If sending your kid to college had a warning label, it would read:
Sending your child away to college may cause serious side-effects, such as: extreme moodiness, sleeping too much, sleeping too little, waking you at all ours of the night coming in after curfew, becoming incredibly clingy at home, barely noticing your very existence, hogging your wi-fi, hogging your car, challenging your political beliefs, challenging your religious beliefs, radically changing physical appearance, drinking the last of the milk without telling anyone, not cleaning room, not listening to you when you recommend getting a job, breaking house rules regarding visits by romantic partners …
These may be especially intense in children who are first-generation college students.
While these are normal, if they persist or worsen, contact a psychologist.
In a sense, campus life is the modern-day equivalent of taking your kid to the middle of the forest and leaving him to find his own way out. He may not be grappling lions and tigers and bears, but he is working through some strange and dense experiences. The trial changes him, sometimes in a way you’re not prepared for.
While you are at home, doing the same old thing in the same old way, he’s struggling with his identity, new and challenging people, and novel and dangerous ideas.
The reunion is bound to shock both of you.
Here’s the most difficult task for parents during these long breaks: balancing the desire to have your kid back with the desire for maximum return on your investment in a college education.
And here’s how you do that:
Set reasonable rules.
As if it were that simple. “Reasonable” will mean different things to each of you. As long as you are paying the mortgage and utilities, you are in charge, but how you wield that power will determine whether break is a strong or fragile peace. Discuss your kid’s expectations with her, let her know what you expect from her and why those things are important in your home. Keep in mind that, if she’s been successful on campus, she has learned to set good rules for herself. Most attempts to reinstate old rules that didn’t apply at school may cause some difficulty. Pick your battles. Trust your kid.
Show your kid that hearing new ideas helps strengthen values.
It can be really, really hard to talk and listen to your kid while he’s in college. He has spent a lot of time with people you do not know and absorbing ideas you long ago decided were ludicrous. He got caught up in late night conversations on dorm hallway floors that bordered on complete madness or utter nonsense. He had at least one radical professor. Some of the things he says will make you snicker. Some of them will shock you. A few of them will infuriate you. Ultimately, you want him to listen to his professors and friends, to play with new ideas in a safe environment, then to decide based on his own experience which to keep and which to discard. As he goes on about what Freud and Kierkegaard and his anthropology professor say, sit and listen. Engage with him. Ask questions. Then model assertiveness and tell him what you think, keeping in mind the awesome power all parents possess.
Remember: you taught your child more than anyone else ever will.
Because your kid has spent more time with your family than with most other people, and because you were there for early development, your influence will persist, no matter what. Either consciously or automatically, most of us refer to early experiences when making important decisions. The stage for your kid’s life has already been set. There is some evidence that the best thing you can do is promote her ability to choose her own path, and trust her to find her way home.
For better or worse, school breaks are almost doomed to be difficult. As you clench your teeth, try not to laugh at ridiculous screeds, and remember the cute kid who could barely say “water.” Think about how hard it was to learn all the important things you know.
Then smile knowingly, give a hug if he’ll allow it, and tell him how much you love him.
Happy and safe holidays.
– Shane G. Owens, Ph.D., ABPP
Shane G. Owens, Ph.D., ABPP is an authority on college and young adult mental health. As a college administrator and in private practice, he works primarily with adolescents, emerging adults, and parents. He is a board-certified behavioral and cognitive psychologist.