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Why College Freshman Worry About Their Parents

"But how will you manage without me?"

My granddaughter Jadyn never expected to be homesick when she left for college—and she wasn’t, she informed me firmly. Rather, she was worried about how her father would cope with her absence.

As many college counselors and orientation professionals report, worry about their families’ well-being is a recurrent theme in their discussions with young adults. This is particularly the case among those raised in single-parent homes like Jadyn, who lived with her father during high school and feared he’d be lonely without her, “coming home to that big, empty house after work.”

But even in two-parent families, it’s a concern that rarely gets expressed or explored. Most of the data has focused on parents’ worries about their kids rather than the other way around.

What, specifically, do college kids worry about when it comes to their parents? According to Courtney Faller of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, they worry about their health, although research suggests that unless their parents are already ill or suffer from unhealthy habits, this particular concern usually manifests later, as parents move from middle to old age.

"I see a lot of students whose families suffer from alcohol and/or prescription drug abuse," said a college counselor. The adolescents become parentified and often believe that only their presence can keep their parents sober, a concern that's frequently voiced in support groups for the children and families of addicts.

Students worry that their parents don't exercise enough, that they don't ever take vacations, and that the stress of meeting all their obligations while simultaneously caring for themselves is taking a toll on their well-being. And they worry about disappointing their parents by failing academically, by not following the dreams the adults dreamt for them, by letting them down when they were needed, or not being asking for help when they were. Many young adults are keenly aware of the financial pressures their own education adds to their parents’ already heavy load, which exacerbates their fear of disappointing them by not succeeding in college.

Contrary to the media image of young adults as self-centered, many worry about whether their parents are happy. And they claim they can tell when they’re not, sometimes by the volume of texts and the time and tone of the calls they get as much as by the content.

Most college orientation programs advise that parents refrain from mentioning bad or potentially disturbing news to their students whenever possible, especially during the first semester—better to wait to share it in person.

A coaching client reports that she feels she has to “pretend I’m sailing through the divorce,” because her daughter is very sensitive to her moods: “She takes them on herself,” she says, “so I have to filter what I tell her. Like, I refer to the divorce as a sad thing, but reassure her that I’m not only not falling apart, but happier than I’ve been in years.” In fact, parents who wait until their children have left for college to initiate divorce proceedings may be surprised when their students react by withdrawing from school, believing that only they can prevent the dissolution of their parents’ marriage.

It’s not only older teenagers who worry about their parents. People in their 20s, before they’ve formed stable life structures or families of their own, share concerns about their parents’ welfare. Jennifer Derrick, a realtor whose son left home at 25, was surprised by his decision to move back across the country after a year in which he seemed to be very satisfied with his first foray into independent living.

He had found a job, friends and an apartment, and raved about all the new things he was learning and doing. Asked by his grandmother why he was giving them up, he reported that both of his (divorced) parents had recently lost their dogs, one had an important relationship end, and the other had recently suffered a minor, transient medical issue. Was he done with New York? she asked. Not by a long shot, he replied. After a candid multigenerational conversation in which both parents expressed their appreciation for his concern and reassured him that the best thing he could do for them was to get on with his life, he changed his mind.

Young people worry about the same things their parents worry about because they know that ultimately they’ll be affected by them in some way, too. “How will this change my life?” is a question that’s central to children at earlier developmental stages, whether it’s the arrival of a sibling or a move to a new neighborhood. By the time true individuation and separation is achieved, the emotional lives of parents and their grown kids are more loosely linked—but parents’ changing or diminished circumstances may directly impact their adult children’s lives.

As parents, we’re ambivalent about our kids’ concerns about us. Yes, it’s nice to be reassured that they’ve grown into people who care about our welfare, not just their own. But it’s also a reminder of the role reversal that awaits us all. As my eldest reminded me when I told her not to worry about me, she replied, “And may your house be safe from tigers, too.”

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