Having your child fail out of college can be one of the most confusing and devastating experiences for them and for you. There is a deep loss of confidence experienced at many levels. Your teen wonders if they can cut it as a college student. You wonder the same thing.
You might wonder if you’ve done something wrong as a parent. Your child feels they’ve disappointed you. Everyone’s self-esteem and sense of self gets pureed in an emotional blender. Regardless of where you and your child end up in the future, the logistical and emotional issue of their return home is confusing and fraught.
What to Do if Your Teen Fails Out of College
1. The child’s return is not the parent’s failure to launch
No parent wishes for their child to remain a child for their whole lives. Even though we miss them when they’re away, and we worry about them when we can’t know everything they’re doing, every parent wants their teen to grow up and be their own person. What does that mean, though, “be their own person?” It means taking their life in their own hands, making their decisions and finding their way. And as our children transition to independence, parents must remember: be your own person too.
2. You have choices
If you feel their moving back home is what YOU want to be doing as a parent, go for it. But, if you feel like you have nothing to offer, or that your life will go off the rails, look for a relative who can temporarily house them, tell them to couch surf with friends, or if you can handle it financially, pay for a shared roommate situation until a plan can be formulated.
3. You can set limits
If you want to parent your adult-living-at-home child, you can charge them rent (maybe not full market value) or ask for contributions to the household expenses. You can ask that they respect the house rules that you want to live by. You can also establish conditions such as they have to find a job, or they have to do some focused work on figuring out why they failed and what changes they need to make to succeed.
4. You get to determine the nature of the agreement
It’s home to them and to you, and that’s a beautiful thing. But it’s primarily your house, and you (both as the person in charge of the house and as a person in charge of your own life) get to put what you need ahead of what they want.
5. You can change your mind
You can let your child move back home and see how it goes, and then you can “give notice” and tell them they have a month or two to find another place.
6. Their return may be a vital step in your parenting journey
We are indeed parents for life. The job changes, but it’s still ours. We like to think being good parents means being selfless. Sure, you can have that sandwich I just made for myself. Sure, I’ll get up at the crack of dawn to drive you to your soccer practice. But the good feelings that come with loving our kids? The satisfaction in being someone’s parent? That’s for us. So give yourself permission to see your decision to bring your child home as something that you’re doing, at least in part, for yourself.
There may be lessons you didn’t get to teach them when they were younger that you still believe they need to learn. There may be experiences you want to share, or ways of being that you want to communicate, that are best offered with them living at home. Whatever the reasons, it’s important to know that they are your reasons and they serve you. Without a true sense of purpose, you will resent their presence and things get messy from there.
7. Their return home may be a vital step in their adulting journey
Failure in school is one of the Big Things that make kids question themselves and whether they belong. We build up success in college as an arrival at the doorstep of independence and adulthood, so when students don’t succeed they wonder if they just aren’t good enough people.
Despite the American emphasis on individuality, we are a society of “in-groups” and “out-groups” and each of us wants to be part of something and feel like we belong to at least one group. Being successful academically gives students their ticket to be part of the in-group of college students. So failing out and returning home is a time of feeling out-of-step with peers and also not really fitting in as the child they were. It is a powerful opportunity to re-set and re-examine values and sense of self, which is what will make them strong and self-assured adults.
8. The teen who left will not be the young adult who is returning
Though it may be tempting for your child to resume their role as dependent teen, dissuade them. They may want to return to a nocturnal pattern of sleeping all day and staying up all night. It might cause friction, but you can set expectations. And though it may be tempting to resume your role as ever-present, laundry-doing, meal-fixing, easing-all-their-pain parent, resist. Returning home is not an opportunity to return to childhood.
Love them, support them, help out occasionally, but take a back seat to solving the problems for them. Even the college student who is home for the summer should maintain their upward trajectory towards adulthood. It may feel awkward, and while our instinct is usually to make things that are awkward feel less awkward, resist. Your young adult living at home shouldn’t feel like the easy fit of a well-worn shoe. Expect it to feel like the shoe doesn’t quite fit, because even though their time in college has been interrupted, it did in fact begin, and the process of becoming independent has taken root.
Perhaps the biggest task for the student who has returned home is that they take an honest look at how they got there. If they are willing to let you be part of that conversation, be open and listen. If you’re not the right person for them to speak to, find a coach or a counselor who will help them make a thorough assessment of their motivation, skills, and academic choices.
9. Schools are not always built to help students succeed
Schools, even the great ones, aren’t perfect. And even though we think that students are considered the top priority to the colleges they worked so hard to get into, schools are actually juggling a lot of different priorities. Schools have to keep a lot of people happy, including the faculty, the donors, the board of directors, and so on. Unfortunately, the complex student needs they try to meet — intellectual, emotional, nutritional, social, developmental — don’t always set students up for success. Student success, and failure, is always a shared responsibility of the student and the school.
So if your child is on their way home after a dismal semester, know that much good can come next. With the right perspective, it could be a great moment for growth. For you and for them.
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