Guest post by Doris Iarovici, MD
Life with a college student in the family is full of change, but folding your child back into the family for the long summer break can be a surprisingly challenging transition. Whether they’re home for the entire summer, or for a few weeks before an internship or travel abroad experience, or whether the family and student vacation together, things likely will not be as they were. As a college counseling center psychiatrist I’ve talked with many parents of students who encountered difficulties about the best ways to support their child when he or she came home, but as the mother now of college-aged children myself, I see first-hand that all students and families must navigate new roles and patterns of communication if we’re to make the most of the times we get to spend together.
Most of us parents have stayed in place this past year while our son or daughter has been in college—whether for their first year, or for their last. For parents, life has been relatively unchanged: same house, job, family configuration. But our child has experienced massive change and growth. Psychologist Jeffrey Arnett describes the time between ages 18 and 25 as “emerging adulthood,” a developmental stage which differs from both adolescence and adulthood. It exists mainly in industrialized nations where people delay employment and child-bearing, and is characterized by unprecedented change and role exploration. Your son or daughter has experienced significant residential changes, variability in friendships, romances, and other relationships, and new expectations regarding self-sufficiency. The worldviews they’ve encountered may drastically differ from the ones with which they were raised. They’ve made choices regarding how they structure their time, whether—and how—they are sexually active, whether and how much they use alcohol and other drugs, who their closest friends and most admired role models are, and what academic fields most interest them. Whether they’ve had to use counseling services or not, every one of them has experienced difficult or even overwhelming times this past year, as well as moments of great joy and triumph.
So how do we re-engage with our emerging adult across this difference of experience?
It’s helpful to remember that in surveys asking whether they feel “adult,” most college students answer “in some ways yes, in some ways no.” This “in-between-ness” characterizes the behaviors we see in our kids when they return. But if we treat them as we did when they were in high school, we’ll encounter major conflicts. One study of parenting styles and outcomes in emerging adults found that for both mothers and fathers, authoritative parenting—a combination of warmth/responsiveness, valuing autonomy, and clearly stated expectations—led to the best outcome: a healthy sense of self-worth in the child and a strong, positive parent-child relationship. Parenting that used punishment, verbal hostility, high control, or, conversely, extreme indulgence, led to depression and anxiety in the offspring and a poor parent-child relationship (Nelson et. al., 2011).
Stay open and curious. Talk and listen! Your child has likely learned some amazing things and met fascinating people. Don’t just ask about their grades. Ask about what they learned, what they enjoyed, where they struggled. Students at highly selective colleges fear seeming less than perfect; show interest in their wellbeing and their challenges as well as their successes. Remember that now is the time to collaborate rather than dictate; focus on maintaining your relationship, gradually reduce the amount of control you exert, and draw up new boundaries which acknowledge their increasing autonomy.
Emerging adults are trying on new roles regarding work, love, and worldview both as preparation for their consolidated adult identity, but also sometimes just for experimentation’s sake. For example, in the romantic realm, they may be both starting to think about life partners, and also experimenting with romance and sex via “hook-ups.” Similarly, not all summer experiences lead to an ultimate career path. It’s best to not overreact to any particular new path a student is taking, because likely it will change again soon. That doesn’t mean we can’t voice our concerns should concerns arise—but to be heard, we must do this in dialogue, not in edicts. Edicts backfire, either in the moment with you, or later, when the student is again on his own.
Let them sleep, especially when they first get home, but then feel free to talk about their goals beyond just sleep for their time off. Plan with them, not for them. Focus on the present moment, and enjoy your time together. And if you do see signs of more significant problems—persistent low mood, continued oversleeping or an inability to sleep, significant weight loss, problematic substance use, or big changes in personality—please encourage them to get help. Counselors at their university counseling center are often available to consult with parents, should you be unsure how to best find help in your area.
Doris Iarovici, M.D., is a psychiatrist at Duke University Counseling and Psychological Services, and author of Mental Health Issues and the University Student, published by Johns Hopkins. A version of this post appeared in the Duke Student Affairs Blog, which you can find here.