This article appears in November Family magazine.
As college kids head back home for Thanksgiving or holiday break, parents may notice some changes. Not only is your son or daughter growing up, he or she may have picked up a few bad habits while away from the nest.
Parenting a college-age child is a balancing act, said Mitch Prinstein, professor of psychology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and author of “Popular: The Power of Likability in a Status-Obsessed World.”
College is a big step toward adulthood and will change a person in two main ways, Prinstein said. First, college allows a person to experience increased autonomy.
“Parents are used to having complete control over the lives and habits of their children,” Prinstein said. At college they no longer have to live under your rules.
Changes are also occuring in their brains, he said. In late adolescence — toward the end of middle school to the beginning of high school — children begin to align more with their peers than with their parents, Prinstein said.
“In college the pendulum begins to swing back the other way,” Prinstein said. As they mature, “it’s a chance to hit a social reset button as they consider what attitudes, behaviors and values are important for them. They’re wrestling with their identity of who they want to become,” Prinstein said.
So what’s a parent to do when junior comes home and proceeds to miss family meals or stay out all night without checking in? The house rules that applied when they were younger won’t work with young adults who have tasted independence.
“You can’t treat them like they’re 6 years old. Imposing rules is a quick way to get them to rebel. Yet, you can’t give them complete autonomy, either,” Prinstein said.
Young college kids still crave their parents.
“They want security, guidance and structure,” Prinstein said.
To make it work, the tone of the conversation has to change.
“It’s less rules and restrictions and more engaging with them as young adults,” Prinstein said.
For example, the kid who wants to stay out late and sleep all day needs to come to the understanding that those behaviors don’t fit into a family lifestyle. A parent can ask, “How is that going to work for you if the rest of the family is getting up at 6 a.m. and we’ll be making noise?”
The parent can lead the converation to help the child recognize the problem and engage as an adult. It may be fine to stay out late, but the student still needs to help out around the home, attend family events or meet other family obligations.
In other words, a young adult should be allowed to make his own decsions, but the family can’t adapt their lives to how a student lives when he’s away at college, Prinstein said. Parents and college-age kids need to be flexible and adaptable as they work together to figure out how to treat each other as adults.
‘Kids need to follow their own path’
Parents also need to curb their expectations. It’s very common for kids to come home from college and for parents to be surprised that they are not following the path laid out for them. That could mean a student who parents thought would be pre-med is taking art courses, or has shaved her hair.
“Parents need to recognize that kids need to follow their own path, even when it includes making mistakes. If they do, they will more likely be on the path to truly being happy,” Prinstein said.
So many kids feel real fear to do what their parents want.
“They feel tremendous pressure not to disappoint their parents,” Prinstein said. The risk is, a student chooses the path her parents wanted and ends up unhappy with the choices she made.