I was at Ithaca College sitting in a large room, listening to the president of the college address the freshman parents. I had just dropped my son off at his dorm after a long day of moving him in, so I was tired and preoccupied.
But as I sat there, his words drifting in and out, he said something that stuck with me: “Please don’t tell your child that these are going to be the best 4 years of your life, as it may not feel that way right now.”
College is Not the Best Four Years of Your Life
I was feeling really unsettled about leaving my son at college. He was an anxious child by nature, though to look at him, one would never have known. His demeanor was always calm and steady. He was blessed with good looks, athletic ability, and plenty of female attention. Nevertheless, I felt his discomfort on a visceral level. He barely uttered a word at the lunch before we were set to drive home. I forced down a piece of toast trying my best to appear normal. The silence at the meal spoke volumes to me: he was scared and uncomfortable.
I had anticipated this day for a long time, knowing that I had a child who had always been “slow to warm.” He became anxious in new situations or when going to new places. He never went on sleepovers at friends’ houses, and he slept in the hallway leading up to my bedroom for 18 months following 9/11. He would only go to sleep-away camp for part of each summer, and that was short-lived. So I expected that his going away to college was going to be a challenge. I knew that I had given him the tools to make the separation, but this was huge.
I could feel his pain with every fiber of my being. Although the feeling was almost unbearable, I knew deep down that not only could he do this, but that it was essential to his personal growth. I understood that I had to leave him and let him “figure it out.” Trying to put on a strong face, I kept it together when I hugged him goodbye but by the time I got to the car however, I was sobbing.
In days that followed, his homesickness came on strong, No one would have imagined he wasn’t happy: he was a member of the college lacrosse team, giving him an immediate place to belong and a tight circle of friends. He felt that talking about his feelings of loneliness wouldn’t have been cool with the team so I became his sounding board… a role that I was accustomed to playing.
Throughout his childhood, I pushed him when necessary, held my ground, and supported him in ways that I believed would eventually empower him.
College was no different. When he called (daily), I listened and empathized but stayed focused on his coping capabilities. I had a deep understanding of “sitting with the discomfort” from my professional life as a Clinical Social Worker. Meaningful change is almost always accompanied by discomfort, yet it is the fear of discomfort that stands in the way of growth. And in this particular circumstance, both parent and child are uncomfortable.
During my personal experience I practiced on myself all the things I taught my clients. But what about all the other parents out there that don’t possess these clinical skills? What about all the other kids who feel unhappy at college while everyone else appears to be having the time of their life?
From where I sit, parents are either overly involved because the idea of their child being unhappy feels unmanageable, or some children aren’t given the room/space to express themselves. With this comes a silence, creating further anxiety and isolation. Finding that middle ground of enough support but not too much is often quite difficult for parents to navigate. How do we hold the line when our kid is suffering? How do we resist the urge to fix their pain?
When we feel miserable, we start to believe that we’re going to stay this way, that this is it. Most of the time this isn’t true: things shift, people grow. But until this happens, it’s almost impossible to see that there will or can be something different.
My son didn’t believe that things would change and actually imagined that he may have had to come home. I allowed him to have these feelings without trying to change his mind. I listened. I told him I loved him and that I was sorry that he was struggling. I told him that I believed he’d figure it out. I never told him what I thought he should do. Kids frequently make the mistake of thinking they don’t belong at their particular school before they give themselves time to actually adjust. Based on their child’s unhappiness, parents can make the same assumption.
When we fix things for our children, we send an unconscious message of “you’re not capable.” The work (the effort we must expend to change and grow) is to look for ways to empower our child without taking over. When we don’t give them that time and space to adjust, we remove the opportunity for them to fight their way through. We want to transmit the message to our children that we as parents trust that they’re going to figure it out. Getting through difficulty and coming out the other side has multiple benefits: the immediate feeling of accomplishment, and the longer-term confidence to confront and deal with the next hard thing.
For most kids, college is the first time they experience the challenges of living on their own. Part of that experience is learning to make independent decisions. Allowing our children to wrestle with this process – as difficult as that may be – helps them to develop an important life skill: simply “hanging in.”
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Lisi Robinson is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW) who has spent the past 14 years providing individual and group therapy for inmates at the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility, a maximum-security prison for women in New York State. In addition, she maintains a private practice working with adolescent and adult women, and is available for one-on-one sessions in person, by phone, and Skype. Lisi graduated from New York University with her graduate degree in Social Work and her undergraduate degree in Fine Arts/Drama. She lives in Bedford, NY with her husband, and is the mother of three grown children.