I Live With 200 College Freshmen; 8 Reasons l Know They’re Fine

It’s been two decades since my husband began his career as a professor at a top-tier university in the Midwest. Last year, our family was offered a coveted spot in one of the residential college faculty apartments. Now, I have a front-row seat watching 200 new freshmen flop around adorably every fall. (Freshwoman. Freshperson. First-year. Whatever.)

We primarily operate as neighbors to these recently liberated New Adults. We are friendly and welcoming but make it clear in every way possible that we don’t care what they’re up to. Well, we care…but we won’t stand in the way of whatever freak flag they want to fly.

The drama of August drop-off may still be fresh in your mind. (Twenty20 @scenesnapper)

The drama of the August drop-off, which may still be fresh in your mind, subsides, and we usually settle into a polite and cordial relationship with the students by mid-September. They learn quickly that we’re not interested in being their parents, and they gradually become less like feral kittens and more like semi-interested, lukewarm cats.

They are friendly to our teenage kids and chatty with us when they’ve had enough sleep. They gratefully devour the freshly baked cookies we occasionally leave in the common room as they’ve never tasted sugar.

They go bonkers, drop down on all fours, and speak in tongues whenever they encounter our dog. But they don’t hang out with us often because they are incredibly busy and focused people, and that’s how I know they are fine.

Your New Adult may be torturing you long distance with their highs and lows, but that’s still their job. Your job is to remain calm and look for the telltale clues of a reliably functioning freshman. Take a breath. Don’t hightail it back here to campus. For parents who are frustrated by distance and emotionally unreliable 18-year-olds:

Here are 8 solid indicators your freshman is perfectly fine:

1. They joined something.

Anything. It seriously doesn’t matter what it is. Usually, it’s an a capella group. Could be an interpretive dance company or a fringe political committee. Maybe it’s a sorority. Their choice might surprise you. I might draw the line at improv, but guess what — parents don’t get to weigh in. Whatever it is, be happy. They found their people, and they are not alone.

2. They painted something.

If they joined something, they probably also painted something. Don’t panic. This (usually) isn’t vandalism or rebellion. Most universities have a rock, wall, or semi-permanent structure that spirited groups on campus get painted to announce, “WE’RE HERE! AND WE HAVE A THING GOING ON THIS WEEKEND!”

If your freshman has stayed up all night and comes stumbling home at dawn covered in whatever color represents their tribe, everything proceeds according to plan.

3. They quit something.

Maybe it’s meat. Or an instrument. Or hometown honey. They showed up with something woven into their personalities’ fabric for as long as they can remember. Then they woke up one day, got distracted, and, without even deciding, dropped that thing like a french fry on the dining hall floor and never looked back.

Whatever it is might still be important to you, but it isn’t to them. At least not right now. Who cares if that thing isn’t critical to their health and well-being? Don’t worry about it.

4. They changed something.

Their name, wardrobe, gender identity, and favorite band. It’s all good. It’s all normal. It’s all fine. They are experimenting and changing their minds. Be grateful that they have minds that are capable of change! If they appear on FaceTime looking slightly different or wholly transformed, your safest reaction is probably “hum.” Inquire cautiously if you must, but stop short of probing for details.

Whatever it is could change again, so don’t work too hard to adjust. If they still look, act, or identify this way by Christmastime, it’s probably time to embrace it.

5. They did NOT tattoo or pierce something.

Strictly speaking, neither of these are real cause for concern either. But nobody should make a permanent decision about anything at 18. They can do these things, but let’s hope they think rationally and still have the smallest healthy fear of your reaction.

My kids learned at a very early age to find another way to piss me off (though I might regret that someday and wish an artful teardrop on my baby boy’s cheek was my biggest problem). Anything they do will hopefully be impermanent or concealed by everyday street clothes.

6. They are studying something.

Anything. It seriously doesn’t matter. Maybe they dropped pre-med when your car left the parking lot and decided that music is their passion. (I can assure you that this is also FINE.) Or they are riddled with indecision between econ and finance (I…can’t…help…in any way…with this one). Maybe they are still an indecisive hot mess and busily knock their general course requirements out of the park while waiting for inspiration.

As long as they uphold their end of the tuition bargain and earn those credits like the little achievers you raised them to be, it’s okay. It’s all leading somewhere. I promise.

7. They planned something.

And it doesn’t involve coming home. <sob> Probably spring break somewhere warm with friends. Or maybe a summer internship. They’re clearly on the trail of something amazing. I know you were looking forward to having them home, so you watch them eat, play video games, and breathe in and out for a few weeks, but they just discovered that the world is bigger than the house they grew up in.

Don’t worry — they’ll eventually be back to eat all your food and sleep until noon.

8. They started doing something.

Something adults do. They’re doing laundry, holding the elevator door for others, and emptying their trash cans regularly. Maybe they’ve started responding to your texts promptly, making their doctor’s appointments, and perhaps even keeping them. They call their grandmothers unprompted and say good morning to the adults in the hallways.

The most evolved, true heroes among them might see me struggling with bags of groceries on my way in and offer to help. These are all things that fully formed, good people do. They are becoming community members and caring for each other and themselves.

Now that your teen has gone, what about you?

If the fog of having been separated from your New Adult has you struggling to trust that all is well, by all means, verify! Preferably with someone qualified and more familiar with yours than an only mildly interested, neutral source perched on a high vantage point and observing a large herd of them daily. (Me. That’s me.)

Your kid is unique and may need some special care and feeding. But if you suspect (as I do, in so many cases) that this is mostly your anxiety to manage, try to remember that you raised them right. Their souls are just now starting to enter their bodies. It’s time to calm down and return to finding your way now that they’re doing their thing.

They still love you. They still need you. But differently than before, and they aren’t thinking about you. That’s as it should be. I can see your kids from here, and it is overwhelmingly likely that they are perfectly fine.

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About Leslie Zacks

Leslie Zacks lives on a midwestern university campus with her family. Between balancing kids, a career and several foster dogs, she writes weekly about a wide range of topics, including what it's like living alongside a whole new crop of new college students every fall. Follow her on Medium @lesliekleinbergzacks and on Twitter @lesliezacks

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