Every fall as the holidays approach, parents get excited about seeing their college children come home for the holidays. If you are being honest with yourself, though, there may be just a little trepidation, especially if this is your child’s first year living away from home. Here are a few things to consider ahead of time so that you have a chance to be prepared.
Back to the Rules of the House vs Independence
Some parents find themselves disappointed that their children are not meeting the parents’ expectations of what this visit home would be like. However, the kids have their own agendas about what they want to do while at home. At the same time, while they are becoming young adults, they are likely not yet fully mature considerate adults and will not be thinking about what the impact of their actions are on their parents and family without some prompting. Here are some common scenarios:
Parents should remember that none of this was on the minds of their young adults while living away at college for the past several months BUT that at your house, it is reasonable to lay out some compromise guidelines upfront for the duration of the holiday break. You should also expect to make a few adjustments for “young adulthood”, but it is still your house. You should also anticipate that this will come up again during future breaks and that there will need to be refreshers re the rules.
Emotional issues facing college students
There are some “first time away at college” students for whom those first few months away from home are a big adjustment and are extremely emotionally stressful. Their school advisors and/or parents may not even have been aware that they were struggling emotionally. In fact, it turns out that many college students, especially first year students, experience significant loneliness and are ashamed to admit it. It doesn’t make logical sense to them because how can they be lonely in the middle of a huge group of people? Last year, Emery Bergmann, a first year student at Cornell, struggled with this herself and posted a YouTube Video about her experience for a Digital Media class. It went viral, touching a nerve among other students who felt the way she did. I shared an article written last year from the Washington Post with many parents I know who had kids struggling to adapt to the college experience¹. The video that she created describing how she felt was so descriptive. I encourage you to watch it. This year, as a much happier sophomore, Emery followed-up with an article for the New York Times, talking about her newer perspective on things².
The first semester/trimester/quarter...whichever academic and social period your child goes through at school is a period of excitement and of adjustment. It can be fun and it can create significant anxiety both academically and socially as your child adjusts to a new environment, new routine, new people, and new social pressures. Add in ready access to substances like alcohol and marijuana and the situation becomes even more complex. Both marijuana and alcohol are sometimes seen, incorrectly, as a way to cope and make things feel better. In fact, they can increase depression and marijuana, especially, can exacerbate anxiety. For some students, the end of the first period away from school is a point of reckoning when they decide that they may not yet be ready to go away to college. In those cases something as simple as a semester or a year at a local community college or taking some time to regroup and work before returning to college may provide the emotional breathing room and time to mature necessary to determine what the best course of action is with regard to college. Professional help is probably worth considering. Parents have the best intentions, but someone independent with professional skills is probably a better choice to help your child, as well as you, find the optimal path going forward and the timing that will make it work best. As a professional, I can also say that in my experience, your child may also listen better to suggestions that do NOT come from a parent even if the words are virtually identical. If your child expresses anxiety or concern about returning to college, before you react out loud in any way, try using these phrases: “Tell me more...help me understand.” And then listen. Don’t say anything about how this makes you feel, but instead listen to how he or she feels. Then ask how you can help. It is important that we, as parents, not make our young adult children responsible for our feelings nor try to fix their problems. We can, however, listen, and provide them with support which may mean resources.
College student health resources have been overwhelmed in recent years by the demand for mental health services and their lack of preparedness and ability to meet those needs. The increase in the rate of suicides on college campuses has prompted a much needed improvement in mental health outreach and response services on college campuses³. In the last 2-3 years they have stepped up their efforts to meet those needs by providing outreach to attempt to identify students with problems before they reach a crisis. Many colleges have increased the training of appropriate staff and expanded their efforts to educate students and parents of students about what services they are prepared to offer both on campus and in the community. For one thing, more and more college students are arriving at college already in treatment for anxiety, depression, ADD and ADHD, substance abuse as well as other mental health issues that student health services were not prepared to handle in the past. They may still not be prepared to handle these themselves but it is important to make sure that their students are connected to essential resources in the community and are aware of any on-campus support in case it is needed.
Remember...take a deep breath, your young adult child is still just that...a young adult child.
Take a moment to be thankful for what we have and for everyone in our lives and the world around us who help make it possible. Enjoy your holidays.
Peace to you and yours,