Let’s be real, parents and their young adults have never been closer. I’m speaking specifically about Gen X/Boomers and their Generation Z kiddos. It’s all about perspective because parents see it as being friends with their young adults. Who wouldn’t dream of being that close with their kid? As professionals though, we see it as enmeshment and dependence. Neither of which is healthy in allowing your young adult to spread their wings, work through the discomfort in navigating life alone on a college campus, and truly beginning to develop into early adulthood.
Full disclosure, I’m not a parent. The closest I’ve come to be a parent is adopting a puppy and raising it. Please don’t read this as an ill-informed comparison! What I’m getting as it that through the attachment with my dog, formed a constant anxiety around her well-being. Making sure she was getting enough exercise, eating well, and taking her to the vet when needed. These were all things I cared about deeply. Why? Because I want my dog to thrive. I worry about her when I’m not around. I want her to live a full life knowing she was loved. How my dog behaves is a reflection on me as a dog owner. I judge other dog owners in how they treat their dog, or how their dog behaves. This is a very real judgement. Can you being to make a connection between me parenting my dog and how first-time college parents are now acting? Again, not meant to be ill-willed!
This may be the first time these parents have been away from their kids, truly. They’ve been inseparable for 18 years. The last thing you want, as a parent, is for your child to suffer or your child to inflict suffering on someone else. You want them to be happy and healthy. Maybe make life-long friends in college, like you did. Or maybe meet the person they’re going to marry, like you did. Your expectations of their college experiences may have been projections of your own experience. Are you starting to see what you may have accidentally done without realizing it?
Even before the pre-college touring, application madness you did what a lot of other Gen X/Boomer parents did, in protecting your child. You were the helicopter parent, snowplow parent, or curling parent and you were okay with it. Pragmatically, you protected your kid. We get that. What you also did in protecting them was prevent them from building resilience, having their own milestones in experiencing discomfort and working through it independently, or building any type of foundation that allows them to critically think and advocate for themselves without feeling completely helpless and reaching out to you for assistance. That’s where we’ve got college students running into trouble right now.
It’s a week into their first college semester and they’re sending you multiple text messages daily about how lonely, uncomfortable, disconnected, awkward, etc. they feel. Now that they’re in college, the truth of what that entails are smacking them in the face. Another four years of schooling, by choice? A time where they must exhibit self-discipline, cook their own food, do their own laundry, and plan out times to study. It all sounds overwhelming if you ask me.
As a plea to a generation of parents who just helped move in their kid to college, please don’t rescue your college student (yet). You are the ones who just spent hundreds of dollars decorating a dorm room to make it look like a 5-start hotel room. During the final touches of decorating their space, you left a metaphorical radio. You let them know there was a “rescue button” that they could hit, and you would immediately have them airlifted home. You didn’t talk about parameters of when they could hit it, or from your perspective what justifies a rescue. You just left it there for them to use if need be. Like an open cookie jar for a kid with a serious sweet tooth. You knew they’ve hit it, just didn’t know when.
You also just dropped thousands of dollars on tuition, which even one week into the semester you’re already on the hook for never seeing any of that back. Although it may bring you to tears that your young adult is texting you, they wish you’d pick them up, don’t do it. In fact, when you see them next remember to take back the hypothetical radio. By doing that, you teach your kid how to advocate for themselves. They find the resources on their own to get the help they need. You did a damn good job for 18 years of being the resource of everything for them. Now it’s time to let them figure it out on their own.
Here’s the asterisk in all this. If after validating your young adults’ emotions (“I hear you that you are lonely, and miss your family.”), if your young adult completely shuts down and isolates – call in the troops. You can explore helping them withdraw themselves from campus. They can request a medical leave. They can get treatment for anxiety, depression, etc. and then return to college (not just that one) when they are stable and have the skills to be successful on their own. They may have been sent out too soon! Connect with a professional who can help your young adult! We see the difference in homesickness and being able to coach parents on boundaries versus seeing students with significant undiagnosed mental health issues. As a professional, we can be objective to this process and also help you, as a parenting unit, to learn how to be the parent of a young adult (read: someone far from home who successfully learned most of their life skills from you), instead of parenting a child.
The college transition is a tough time for both parents and young adults. It impacts everyone differently. How you respond (and rescue) your young adult will truly mark the trajectory of your young adult either becoming independent, or forever feeling dependent. And you guessed it… those who are dependent have lower self-esteem. Let’s help our young adults launch, and let’s help our parents learn to let go.
Credit: Original metaphor of “radio with rescue button” was pulled from “Not by Chance” by Dr. Tim Thayne.
For more information, check out my post on Lilley Consulting Facebook page.
For anyone looking for additional resources around mental health, substance abuse, college transition coaching, or parent resources you can find them on: https://www.lilley-consulting.com/ or follow @lilleyconsulting, or https://www.facebook.com/LilleyConsultingLLC/.