We’ve all seen the posts on social media of depressed parents. It happens right after a child heads off to college. While kids are bolting out of their childhood homes toward the exhilarating college life, parents are left behind.
Day in and day out despondent parents look longingly at family photos and weep over vacation videos from long ago trips to Disney. It’s a tough adjustment even for the most unsentimental parent.
Meanwhile, kids are living out their dreams. They are strolling around campus with the freedom of a lark. College kids attend unsupervised parties and come and go as they please. They eat what they want at any time they choose. They attend their 9 am class or they don’t. They sleep in their own beds or in the warm comfort of a new love interest. In short, college kids are let loose for the first time in their lives, and they are living it up.
When those free-living students come back home during breaks parenting can become more challenging. Parents, who have ached for their missing child, now must wait patiently for their sleep-deprived progeny to emerge sometime after noon for a meal. And right after a quick bite the kids run out to be with friends.
It’s not just the absenteeism that frustrates parents of college kids. It’s also the rapid demise table manners and grooming habits. It’s the explosion in the kids’ formally neat bedrooms. And worst of all, it’s the brand new I’m-the-master-of-my-own-domain attitude and the vocabulary filled with newfangled expletives.
Can you guess what happens when parents and college kids try to cohabitate again after being apart? I’ll tell you if you haven’t experienced it yet. Lots and lots of arguments, yelling and lectures. It’s not a fun time for either of the involved parties. College kids don’t want to be told what to wear and when to eat. They don’t want to be restricted to a curfew or lectured about their less-than-desirable language. They just want to be. It’s not personal. College kids are used to being independent beings and reintegration is hard.
Parents who can’t adjust to their children’s new adulthood risk pushing them away. As the disagreements continue children move further and further away from their home base. They spend more time at college, come home for fewer days and call less often. While parents are desperately trying to remain close to their adult children those children are desperately trying to grow up and become independent.
When children are young there is a need to mold and shape their behavior. Parents actively teach values, skills and behaviors kids need to grow up to be successful in the adult world. Parents discipline and admonish as needed to teach important lessons. But once kids head off to college those times are gone. Parents must shift into a different role, and that’s not so easy.
To skip the pain and agony of the next homecoming parents should adopt one simple, yet highly effective, mantra: Ignore It!
That’s right, when your kid burps like a feral pig — ignore it. Simply look the other way when your child’s room resembles a thrift store on collection day. Ignore the cursing you and the I-know-everything attitude. Don’t respond when your daughter wants to spend all of her time with her loser boyfriend. Skip reacting to the late nights, atrocious eating habits and the disturbing new hairstyle. Ignore it all.
At this point in your parenting career you will not change or shape your child’s behavior to a great degree. Your work in that department has mostly come to a close. All of your lecturing and admonishing your now grown child will not bring back your adoring toddler. But the constant correction will put a wedge further between you and your child. The arguments will increase and as a parent you will feel worse.
It’s not easy to ignore this behavior change in your college kids. In fact, it’s a million times more difficult than giving your opinion or responding with discipline. But using Ignore It! will preserve your relationship, and that’s really the goal here. Of course you can still have rules. But many of the previous hard and fast family regulations will need to be renegotiated. Find new terms for curfew, room upkeep, language, use of the car, nutrition, table manners and a host of screen-time rules.
Spare yourself and your relationship this holiday season. Remember your college kid’s behavior isn’t indicative of a lack of home training. It’s just a young adult figuring out how to live independently. So, when a college kid descends on your home for the next vacation and their behavior isn’t up to par, just Ignore It!
Catherine Pearlman, PhD, LCSW is the author of Ignore It!: How Selectively Looking the Other Way Can Decrease Behavioral Problems and Increase Parenting Satisfactionwhich is available now from TarcherPerigee. She’s also the founder of The Family Coach and an assistant professor at Brandman University. Follow Catherine on Facebook and Twitter.