How to Cope When Your College Kid Comes Home
It’s the cry of parents with college-aged kids heard round the world.
You’re happy to see each other, but your grown children moving home unexpectedly can feel like a major disruption on their journey to self-sufficiency, and your journey away from active parenting to the role of mentor.
So how do you help them succeed without reliving their high school years? Road2College weighs in, along with some tips from psychologist Dr. Margaret Rutherford, author of Perfectly Hidden Depression: How to Break Free from the Perfectionism that Masks Your Depression, and host of The SelfWork Podcast:
You’re roommates. Act accordingly.
That means working out the who does what, and when, details, as well as setting realistic expectations for your living environment.
The difference between you and their previous roommates is, your college kid may look at you and see dinner, laundry, and maid service—and you may look at them and see a messy room and nonstop eating machine.
So first things first: Nix those stereotypes in your head. “It’s going to be important for the college-aged child and parent to really flesh out the standards and expectations that help honor their growing independence and the needs of the household and parents,” advises Dr. Rutherford.
A good starting point?
“Ask each other which of the old rules that existed before they went away to school need to stay in place, and which don’t.”
The goal is to keep the household running efficiently and make school a priority. Talk about who is making dinner (neither of you should assume it’s you!), who is doing laundry, cleaning the house, taking the dog out, etc.
If you haven’t already, scope out and establish your child’s study area together. Then respect it. They need to manage the space, not you. Roommates don’t touch each other’s personal stuff.
To carve out that space, your son or daughter may need to get creative: closets, screens, curtains, tents–whatever it takes. And be flexible—does it really matter what it looks like if nobody is coming over?
Just be sure that it allows them an opportunity to focus on school, with limited distractions, while allowing other family members to also do schoolwork, or work from home. Noise-cancelling headphones are a game changer for living situations where there are multiple people trying to work, learn, and live.
They’re home because of COVID-19, so be sure you have a plan in place for keeping one another safe.
Be prepared to update it as news changes, and decide together who is in charge of those updates so you all stay informed.
Rutherford suggests a frank discussion in which everyone weighs in on questions such as: ”What limitations are expected for the household? How do we manage risks?”
Listen. Don’t preach.
It’s also important, Rutherford says, to remember that “everyone is feeling a combination of fear and grief right now.”
Kids were looking forward to benchmarks such as jobs, internships, and social events.
“Some parents are telling their kids that in ten years they won’t care that they missed certain things. This is not helpful,” Rutherford cautions.
Instead, it’s important for them to have a safe place to say, “This stinks–now I’m back living with my parents.”
Remember, this isn’t about them not loving you and being grateful enough, nor is it about kids feeling sorry for themselves. They were on a path. And now that path has shifted.
Remind them that they’re still headed in the right direction. Hear them out, and respect their feelings.
Everyone has lost something during this pandemic.
They may have met someone they liked. Or maybe they ran for president of something, or joined a group or team.
Perfectionist kids may feel online learning is not going to be as good as classroom learning.
There’s a lot of anxiety and grief in all that, says Rutherford. Listen and acknowledge.
But resist the urge to fix. They are building life skills.
Approach problems as you would in a business meeting. But don’t appoint yourself the boss.
So you’re all talking and communicating, and then it stops. Cold. How can you handle things without falling back into old roles?
Rutherford suggests you try putting a new twist on the communication—a more adult version of the family/roommate meeting: make it a business-style meeting instead.
You could pitch the idea with something like this: “Let’s have weekly or biweekly meetings to reassess how things are working.”
The basic rule: Nobody can come into the meeting angry (after all, you’re with your co-workers). Then sit around the kitchen table as a team and talk.
If someone does get angry, handle it as you would in a business environment: Apologize. “Too many parents don’t,” Rutherford acknowledges.
A little apology goes a long way—especially if you’re sticking to your new role as mentor to an adult child.
Whatever you do, says Rutherford, “Don’t assume things are going to go swimmingly.”
Accept that you’re going to get on each other’s nerves, and get mad about who left the top off the peanut butter.
We’re living through something that’s not our choice, and have to adjust our tolerance levels.
That includes not pushing the default parent/child button. With a little effort we’ll all come out this intact, tougher, and wiser.
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