When Kids Go Off to College: The New Normal

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We’re lucky. Our generation of parents has extremely close, loving relationships with our kids. In the book Generation on a Tightrope, about how college students have changed over the past decades, authors and academics Arthur Levine and Diane R. Dean found that today’s students are more connected to their parents than any previous generation in history. 

Some would argue that we have created too tight a bond and like to toss around labels like “helicopter parents” and “snowplow generation.” But most of the parents we know are interested in balance—staying connected to their growing adult children and letting go. Parents who want to continue building a healthy relationship with their college students while allowing them to mature into independent, intelligent, and caring adults.

When those kids go off to college, there’s usually a seismic shift—for everyone in the family. The house feels a bit emptier, a little quieter. There’s a darkened room down the hall and a small hole in your heart. Rest assured: it will take a little time, but you will get used to it and even find positive things about this new normal. Your relationship with your younger children may blossom in ways that would not have been possible before. You may find more time to pursue passions and interests that fulfill you, and your relationship with your spouse may experience its own renaissance. And you will find that your relationship with your college kid will enter a new exciting phase.

So, how do you keep that connection with your college kid while also letting go?

Staying in touch with your student is an important part of supporting them at college. In fact, colleges encourage families to stay connected to their kids and claim that the most successful college students have supportive, involved parents (just not over-involved). But how much contact is too much or too little? There is no one answer. While finding the right balance of staying in touch and letting go may take some trial and error, not being in constant contact may help your kid put down roots at college and become more independent and self-assured. Not being there to help with every small problem or setback will enable your kid to figure things out on their own—a very empowering experience. We’ve learned that when we continually swoop in to save the day, it sends the message that we don’t think they are capable of handling the situation themselves or that we don’t trust them. The only real way for our kids to learn how to deal with things is . . . by dealing with them!

And poof! Just when you get used to the new normal, they’ll be back on one of their college breaks. Aside from all the good stuff—like noticing how grown up they already are or how they actually finally seem to appreciate you—the trickiest part of having them back home is the fact that they are now back under your roof after a brief but intense period of independence and growth and may believe the house rules no longer apply to them. This “new normal” involves revisiting family rules and adjusting your (and their) expectations.  Many parents have told us that, after months of not seeing or knowing what their kids are doing at every moment, they are suddenly unable to sleep when the kids go out at night with friends over break.

So, give some thought to curfews, meals, and events planned and have a family discussion to work out plans for the break that everyone can live with. And enjoy, even for the briefest of moments, the piles of laundry, the shoes left in the middle of the family room, the sibling bickering, and the refrigerator that needs constant restocking. Before you know it, they will be off, and you will once again be left to contemplate how you can make the most out of your new normal.

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