Family Growth: When kids go off to college

Dr. Saidi Family & Relationships

This is an important week in the lives of many American families, especially those of high school seniors.  Starting in mid-March, colleges start releasing decisions about admission and financial aid.  College.  The word has such a positive connotation, and in many people’s memories their college years number among the best in their lives.  Yet, in many individuals—and families—the transitions that mark the beginning and end of college can be bumpy.  College is a rite of passage in our society, a time when adolescents have their first real taste of independence from their parents—and parents are freed up from the daily demands of watching over semi-adult children.

Sounds like a win for both sides, right?  In fact, independence can be difficult for an adolescent to handle, while the separation from a child can be a struggle for parents.  College may bring freedom, but it also brings a total lack of structure, continual exposure to a peer group, the removal of a daily home base—and a lot of partying.  No freshman wants to admit that adjustment to this life can difficult, yet it’s perfectly normal for students to have a rough first semester, or even two, before they find their footing.

From the parents’ perspective, college can represent a loss. (And not just in income.)  Human beings are wired to be bonded to their children for a lifetime—not just when they are young. This is why parents have a hard time letting go when they first take their children to school and why they feel responsible for their adult children after college graduation.  The key word here is “adult.”  Leaving college is a marker of the beginning of adulthood—yet many college graduates and their parents still play the roles of parent and child.

Whether a college graduate is living at home or 500 miles away, it’s important to establish new emotional boundaries: the boundaries that are appropriate for two adults who are close.   Examples of appropriate boundaries at this time include: respecting privacy, having totally separate finances, and being diplomatic.  Parents can have a hard time treating their grown offspring like adults; yet, doing so is the only healthy way to proceed.  So, cut the cord, Mom and Dad.  Your baby can survive on its own—and will thrive without your constant hovering.