Whose Nest Is It Anyway?
Tips for parents to prepare for their college student's return.
Posted May 17, 2019
When my 18-year-old son returns home from his freshman year at college, the thumping sounds of Fortnite, screams about NY Yankees’ home runs, and over-zealous commands for our dog to chase a tennis ball will stomp out the tranquility that has pervaded my home for the last nine months. Will I ask him to quiet the screens and keep his voice down? Or will I wax nostalgic about how I've missed all the noise, and smile lovingly?
In the coming days and weeks, many of you will be faced with a college student’s re-entry—not the fleeting spring break or winter recess—but the lengthy three-to-four-month summer holiday. For some, your college kid’s return is a day you’ve been anticipating with excitement. For others, it may be less positive, bringing added stressors, such as the fear of an ”I-can-do-whatever-I-want-at-school” attitude to the home front. Regardless of how wonderful—or traumatic—the past academic year has been for you without kids at home, it’s now time to prepare, emotionally and physically, for his or her return to the nest.
Adjusting to re-entry can involve a measure of complicated feelings for both parties. For the student, no matter how geographically near or far his school is from home, college has offered a newfound independence, where curfews, piles of dirty clothes, and details like dental hygiene and food choices have no room for parental input.
For parents, there may be anxiety about the disruption of what I call a renovated nest (the nest has not been empty, after all, if we parents are still living in it, as I wrote in an earlier article.) A student’s return can shake up the routines mom and dad have devised while their kid was off discovering himself at school. Freedom to get intimate on the family room floor? That’s over. A spontaneous road trip? Not if your kid needs your car to get to a summer job.
The transition to life without kids at home is tough for some, but research suggests that children coming home can dampen the perfectly happy, newfound freedom many parents experience. A recent study, published last year in the journal Social Science & Medicine, found that adult children who come back to live with their parents after spending time away, often at college, cause a substantial decline in their parents’ wellbeing and quality of life. “When children leave the parental home, marital relationships improve and parents find a new equilibrium,” wrote Dr. Marco Tosi, one of the researchers at the London School of Economics, which conducted the study. “They enjoy this stage in life, finding new hobbies and activities. When adult children move back, it is a violation of that equilibrium.”
As a positive psychology life coach, it is my job to help clients find strategies to lead healthier, happier lives with less stress and greater joy. Here are some tips to help make the re-entry easier for you when your child arrives back in the nest:
Give your child time and space to settle back in
While it’s meant to be a holiday from school, college students often return home feeling pressure to find the right job or internship, make good money, or work somewhere that will look good on their resume. They actually do need a break—even if just a short one—from school where there are high levels of stress coming from academics, social pressures, and lack of sleep. An alarmingly high number of college students feel anxious and depressed, with one in three college freshmen reporting symptoms of a mental health disorder. According to a 2017 American College Health Association survey of more than 63,000 students, 61 percent “felt overwhelming anxiety” in the previous year, and nearly 40 percent “felt so depressed that it was difficult to function.”
The comforts of home can provide a needed respite—so consider allowing your college student time to sleep in and veg out for a few days. He’ll appreciate it (perhaps silently) and, once rested, will be better prepared to reengage in family life. While it may be challenging to see your child seeming so lazy, offering your emotional support and compassion goes a long way. In fact, new research reveals that parental warmth and acceptance can also lead children to develop a greater sense of compassion themselves.
Remind your child that he is not a guest
I do not miss picking up my son’s stuff since he’s been away—especially the 20-pound weights that regularly took up residence on the kitchen floor. Once the fatigue has lifted, it’s a good idea to remind your student that while he may only be home for a few months, he’s not actually a visitor. Sitting down to discuss certain boundaries (late night noise level?), reassign some household chores (pick up after yourself and hey, aren’t you savvy at doing your own laundry now?), and discuss schedules if there will be car sharing or rides needed for commuting to a job.
It’s a good idea to let your child know that even though he’s been living on his own for the past nine months, respecting family members and helping out around the house makes for a happier, more peaceful environment for all.
Introduce your college student to any physical changes at home
I’ll never forget my brother’s shock, and anger, when he returned after his freshman year to find that my father had thrown away his ice hockey equipment to make more room for our dad’s tools. When your student comes home, he may be faced with surprises of his own. Perhaps the basement playroom has morphed into a yoga studio. Or an art studio has replaced the ping-pong table. To avoid any colossal reactions, break the news about household changes that may upset your child before he gets home. It may take some time, but with your explanation and compassion, he’ll come to understand that once kids flee the nest—even temporarily—renovations do happen.
Find ways to reconnect
Maybe there's a tradition you’ve had—an annual baseball game or beach day, for example—in the past, or an interest you share, such as playing tennis or going to an art museum, that you can suggest putting on the calendar. If so, this may be a more enticing way to plan some time together to catch up and reconnect.
Spending quality time with the people we care about is the most important predictor of happiness and well-being. As George Vaillant, the Harvard researcher who worked for several decades on the study that confirmed this conclusion, said: “Happiness is love. Full stop.”
If your child rejects your invitation, however, don’t take it personally and thank yourself for putting in the effort. You can always keep trying.
Share with your child how life has changed for you
When my son left for school, I initially missed the late afternoon tumult and noise—especially the shouts and ball-dribbling coming from Simon and his friends playing basketball in our driveway. The house felt eerily quiet and that made me feel lonely. But over time, I learned to embrace the quiet and came to love the serenity of these hours, when I’d work, read or meditate without distractions until my husband came home. I also took up the ukulele, hoping the challenge would bring a different sort of sound—and humor—to my quiet afternoons.
Explaining how you’ve adapted to, and had challenges with, life without children at home is an opportunity to model your own resilience. And if you’re still having difficulty, it's okay to talk about that too. We all struggle at times, and having that awareness while knowing there are choices you can make to change—and improve—your situation is an empowering lesson worth sharing.
Keep to your schedule and routines
Life without kids changes many things—particularly how you spend your time at home when there’s no longer anyone to feed, dote on or badger to take out the garbage. Without uprooting your routine, perhaps you can add some flexibility to your schedule to make some time for your student in the first days that he’s back at home. Can you take some time to meet your child for lunch? Or leave work early and take a walk or go to the gym together?
Many employers now offer opportunities to promote work-life balance, particularly because it increases productivity. According to the 2014 National Study of Employers, employees with flexible work options are more likely to have decreased levels of stress, better mental and physical health, and improved sleep patterns. A little flexibility, within reason, can be beneficial for both of you.
Maintain what you’ve built with your partner
Naturally, you’ll want to include your child in family activities—and I recommend any that may lure him in. When my son comes home, I cook his favorite foods (steak and roasted potatoes) with the hope that he’ll have dinner with us before meeting up with his friends. It’s also healthy, however, for your child to see and understand that you and your partner have nurtured your own relationship as a couple in his absence and that remains sacred—even when your child comes home. So if Wednesdays are your regular date night our, stick to it.
"One of the most important things couples can do is to prioritize spending quality time together, says Suzie Pileggi Pawelski, co-author with James Pawelski of Happy Together: Using the Science of Positive Psychology to Build Love that Lasts.
There is also great value in kids seeing their parents express kindness and gratitude toward one another. “Taking the time to acknowledge and appreciate one another on a daily basis and celebrating the small magical moments, rather than waiting for the momentous, is key to a thriving relationship,” says Pileggi Pawelski.
Don’t forget to take care of yourself
When your child arrives home, you may feel an urge to drop everything to tend to his every need and whim. That’s okay, as long as you are not sacrificing the time and energy to take care of yourself.
Nourishing yourself with exercise, sleep and nutrition is important for your overall wellbeing. You may also want to include any activities that help you cope with changes and transitions—I often recommend time in nature and mindfulness meditation to my clients, as they can be significantly beneficial for increasing positivity.
When clients report they are feeling anxious or stressed about children returning home, I suggest they try self-compassion exercises. “Self-compassion involves treating ourselves kindly, like we would a friend we care about,” says Kristen Neff, Ph.D., self-compassion researcher, author, and Associate Professor at the University of Texas at Austin.
Good luck with the re-entry. Ideally, you’ll be generally happy to welcome your student home for the coming months, and just as happy to hug him goodbye at the end of summer when he returns to school. And keep in mind that as the nest continues to shrink and grow at various times, renovations can always be made to maintain a lifestyle of your choosing.