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 mostly operate as neighbors to these recently liberated New Adults. We are friendly and welcoming, but we make it clear in every way possible that we don’t care what they’re up to. Well, we care…but we’re not going to stand in the way of whatever freak flag they want to fly.
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 nice 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 totally bonkers, drop down on all fours and speak in tongues every time 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 that your freshman is perfectly fine:
- 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. Personally, 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.
- 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 or a wall or some other semi-permanent structure that gets painted by spirited groups on campus 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 is proceeding according to plan.
- They quit something. Maybe it’s meat. Or an instrument. Or hometown honey. They showed up with something that was 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.
- 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 completely transformed, your safest reaction is probably “hum.” Inquire cautiously, if you must, but stop short of probing for details. Whatever it is could easily change again, so don’t work too hard to adjust just yet. If they still look, act, or identify this way by Christmastime, then it’s probably time to embrace it.
- 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 are allowed to do these things, but let’s hope they think rationally and still have the smallest shred of healthy fear of your reaction. My kids learned at a very early age to find some other 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). Hopefully, anything they do will be impermanent or concealed by everyday street clothes.
- They are studying something. Anything. It seriously doesn’t matter. Maybe they dropped pre-med as soon as your car left the parking lot and decided that music is their passion. (I can personally assure you that this, too, is 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 are busily knocking 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 fine. It’s all leading somewhere. I promise.
- 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.
- 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 are calling their grandmothers unprompted and saying good morning to the actual 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.
Are you looking for a guidebook on parenting teens and college kids? Now — The Grown and Flown book is here!
Grown and Flown is chock-full of grounded, expert advice on how to support your teen in their transition to young adulthood. There is something for every parent in this smart, accessible guide. Lori Gotlieb author of the New York Times bestseller, Maybe You Should Talk to Someone
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 get back 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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Leslie Zacks, her professor husband, and her children live in an undergraduate residential college of a mid-western university where she has the opportunity to observe, mostly unnoticed, a large herd of new freshmen every fall.