My Son Came Home From College (and It Will Be OK): 5 Insights for Parents by Belinda Lichty Clarke
My husband was hitting tennis balls the other day. He got to talking to an acquaintance he’d not seen in a decade. Their discussion about adult children landed on an all-too-common theme – struggling in, then leaving, college. Both sons graduated from high school in 2021 after a full senior year spent online with limited in-person peer interaction. Both went to (insert original Big Ten University here) freshman year, then came home early. Both tried again sophomore year, and again just couldn’t do it.
If you are a college parent, you may be familiar with this scenario, or have friends whose kids emerged from the COVID years woefully ill-prepared to live and succeed independently.
Julie A. Ross, M.A.., is an author and the Executive Director of Parenting Horizons who offers workshops and support groups for both parents and educators. Ross, along with actor/writer and father Gregory Abbey hosts The Parenting Horizons Podcast, a presentation of insights, tips and techniques for parents.
Looking for help with my son, I checked out the podcast. Wanting more, I connected with Ross, who generously offered these key insights and strategies for parents:
1. When kids are struggling, it’s important to tolerate their negative feelings and experiences.
“It’s nice to think of your kid starting college fresh out of high school and magically thinking, ‘I won't have to deal with their emotions anymore.’ And it’s natural for parents to want to ‘fix’ their child’s emotions in an effort to help them have a better experience. However, I find that parents are more effective at helping their children when they go to that deep place, when they acknowledge that it’s hard and when they say, ‘I get it’ and they normalize that feeling by saying ‘In spite of how it may seem, many young people your age are struggling right now.’ Of course, this means that parents have to tolerate their own uncomfortable feelings as well. This is not how you envisioned this experience going – you likely anticipated feeling sad at being an empty nester, but you probably never imagined that your young person would be unhappy and want to move back. It’s OK to grieve the loss of your ideal experience – but not in front of your young person."
2. Your kids may not be talking, but they're always communicating.
“All behavior is communication: pure and simple. Body language is 55 percent of communication and tone of voice is 38 percent of communication. Does it matter if they talk to you with their words? It only matters 7 percent. You can still be attuned to how your kid is doing by paying close to their body language and tone of voice. A grunt means something. A shoulder shrug means something. Staying in bed all day in the dark means something. ‘I’ve GOT it’ means something, and that something is likely NOT good. Interpreting your young person’s body language and tone is the first step in listening to, and ultimately helping, them.
"Acknowledge how you THINK they feel. Sometimes I find that parents avoid talking about feelings with their young people because they're worried if they name the feeling, it will cause more of that feeling. The exact opposite is true. When we name another person’s feelings, they feel listened to and heard and it diminishes that negative feeling. So, saying 'You seem distressed,' or ‘You seem overwhelmed,’ or ‘You seem anxious,’ helps to lessen the intensity of the feeling."
3. Kids speak in code.
“Kids come in and they grunt, or they may say ‘I don't like this meal’ or ‘Get out of my room.’ Most parents take this very personally instead of recognizing that it's an indication of where they are right then in that space, in their day, in their mental position on the world. We drop down to being their age again. And we become very combative. Suddenly we become their peer instead of a parent – someone with greater age and experience who can guide them through the wilderness they find themselves in. So instead of reacting, push the 'pause' button and ask yourself, what is the FEELING behind this? Discomfort? Frustration? Then, even if it’s an hour or a day later, acknowledge that they seem to be struggling."
4. Your job as a parent is to keep your eye on the destination.
"Keeping your eye on the destination can be very helpful. You're going to be off course. Your kid's going to be off course. But if you have your eye on the destination, what you want, which is to raise a kid who becomes independent as an adult, who takes responsibility for their actions, who feels good about themselves, then keep your eye on that. And then when you get off course, you ask, well, 'How do I steer the ship back?' What can I do that will prop up my kid, support my kid, acknowledge my kid?' And to me, most of the time, the answer is listening. Just listen to them. Don't contradict them. Don't tell them that their opinions or feelings or thoughts are wrong. Just listen. Because at our core as human beings, it's that it's feeling listened to is what’s important."
5. Parents need to come to terms with their own sense of failure if their kid leaves school.
"No one has to go to college at a specific time. Colleges would have you believe that the timeline is crucial, but remember that, first and foremost, they are money making operations. Of course, they want kids straight out of high school. They want your money. Never mind that it may not be in your child’s best interests to go right away. Your young person’s mental health is the most important thing in their life. Everything else will fall into place once they're strong and healthy.
Visit the Parenting Horizons website to link to the podcast.
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