Is your college kid an adult?

For parents of college students, summer can be an opportunity to reconnect with the children who’ve been living away from home—many for the first time. Although it’s reasonable to expect it to be a happy experience, it can be full of challenges as well.

Dr. Gail Saltz, a psychiatrist with New York Presbyterian Hospital, sums it up perfectly: ‘On the one hand, you are looking forward to seeing your child ‘ You expect them to be the same person they were when they left to go off to school. You expect them to step back into the role they had before they left for school ‘ doing household chores, keeping a curfew, telling you almost everything, and following the rules of the family. You want to hear all about their studies, their friends, their ambitions and plans ‘ You probably even hope to show them off to the extended family ‘ On the other hand, your college kid just wants to come home and sleep, hang out with old friends and new friends, stay out all night and generally do whatever they’ve been doing at school.’ Sound familiar?

If you’re a parent in this situation, the first thing you have to do is get rid of the ‘shoulds.’ For example, ‘He should spend more time with me. After all, I pay his tuition!’ Well, not so fast. You chose to have this child, and you chose to send him to college because you view that as part of your responsibility for getting him launched into society. That’s fine, but you’re not really entitled to attach strings to this bargain, because he never made a bargain in the first place. He was simply born into it, at your initiative.

Does this mean he owes you no regard at all? Of course not. Does he have a blank check to act irresponsibly on your nickel? No way. But that’s not what we’re talking about here. What we’re talking about is your feeling, as a parent, that because you have done all these great things for your child, you are somehow entitled to have him treat you as a special friend. You’re not.

In her article, Dr. Saltz recommends encouraging ‘an adult-to-adult relationship.’ Most young people in this situation are very sensitive to no longer being treated as young children, or even as teenagers. They want to be grown ups. They have been in a largely unstructured environment for the last few months. They don’t want curfews. They don’t want to take part in family events they would have missed while away at college. They don’t want to be constantly questioned or nagged. This is all natural.

When your child returns home from college, it’s probably best to wait a week or two and see what happens. See what boundaries and guidelines your child has more or less set for him- or herself. The key issue here is judgment. Judgment is an individual matter; there’s no one-size-fits-all way to handle a young person coming home from college. Some use terrible judgment and others exercise judgment beyond their years. The majority fall somewhere in between. If your child is flourishing in college, then this is an indication of maturity and self-responsibility. Don’t insult your young adult by treating him as a child if he has, in fact, been functioning as a competent member of a college community.

Some discussion about rules and boundaries will be inevitable. But don’t say something like, ‘You’re in my house again, and now you’re going to have to live by my rules.’ If you’ve figured out how to enforce rules for a nineteen-year-old against their will, then my hat is off to you. But since most parents can’t do this, I suggest a more realistic alternative: Treat them as you would a fellow adult. For example: ‘I know you want to go out and have fun, and that’s perfectly fine. I realize when you live on your own during the school year you don’t have to answer to me. But let’s be realistic. If it’s 2 am, and I haven’t heard from you, I’m going to worry. That’s stressful for me. It probably would be for you too. I have some suggestions on how to better stay in touch without cramping your style. Can I run them by you? I’m open to your ideas as well.’ A little respect can go a long way.

In a sense, you’re still the parent here. You’re taking the lead and you’re not really offering a choice. But you’re not setting rules ‘from above’ either. If you do, then they’re going to be ignored and you’ll feel angry and foolish—and it’s going to be even harder to establish any kind of standards for summer.

The same adult-to-adult approach applies to other issues, such as use of the car. You wouldn’t allow anybody to use your car indiscriminately. So why would you allow a nineteen-year-old to do so? Of course there will be limits and constraints, because limits and constraints—especially where property is involved—are part of life for everyone. The key is in how you communicate them.

The ultimate issue here is attitude, and whether you view him or her as a child or an adult. I can guarantee that your young adult will know the answer. And, by your attitude, you can make sure it’s the answer you want.