When Kids Leave Home

A milestone for kids, but a potential nightmare for parents.

Posted Sep 08, 2015

iStock photo
Source: iStock photo

Co-Author: Steve Schlozman, MD

It’s May and most of us know where our kids are going to college, or if they are not headed to college, they’ve graduated high school and are off to work.

A major milestone has been reached.

We all know major landmarks in family life: the birth of a child, starting Kindergarten, the first sleep over at another kid’s house, leaving home and living independently.

And while these milestones are all new and exciting, for parents they carry a fair amount of anxiety.

But nothing really matches going to college or leaving home.

Let’s face it. As much as we’ve worked to see our kids through secondary school, as much as our hopes and dreams have focused on our kids becoming independent as a time of transition to adult life — hopefully one that is successful and fulfilling — most parents experience this change with a combination of enthusiasm and dread.

It’s a loss. The loss of a child whom we care for (and control, for the most part,) and a loss of a companion at home. Even the fights are a loss. That’s why we call this phase of adult life the empty nest. So, why don’t we unconditionally relish in our newfound freedom as parents? I think it’s probably because we’re worried, very worried.

What is there to worry about? After all, we have made great choices in seeking the best possible colleges or job opportunities for our kids. They’re really excited about this new great adventure for which they have worked long and hard. They are psyched. And we can understand their excitement. Most of us were there and remember it well.

Maybe that’s why we worry. We remember our own experiences, our own transition and certainly never forget our near misses. Compounding our anxiety, most of us have heard horror stories about other kids who had real problems on their own — stories not all that far from home — from family, friends and in the news.

OK, what are realistic anxieties? Here are some of the more common examples, listed with a fair amount of hyperbole, just to emphasize their emotional power:

  • What if he gets sick? Who’s going to take care of him? And will he have the good sense to know where to get medical attention?
  • What if she has a psychiatric problem? More than half of college kids suffer from depression, anxiety or stress. And there are almost no resources on college campuses, no less education about mental health issues.
  • What about the party life? Far too many students and young adults on their own or under peer pressure binge drink or use drugs. And many girls are sexually assaulted on college campuses. Statistics say one in five. Will she be safe? Will she know not to walk the campus or local streets alone?
  • Will he actually do his academic work? Will he screw up without the daily monitoring and nudging we have provided for so many years? After all, this is not an inexpensive enterprise for us!
  • If he joins a fraternity, will it be safe? What about the hazing and the crazy sometimes reckless things that kids do in Greek life?
  • Will she squander her cash, and not be able to afford a cab to get home safely?
  • Will I get called by campus security or worse, the local police for any one of a number of offenses — dealing or using drugs, breaking and entering, trespassing, assaulting someone, disturbing the peace during a late night bash? Hey, boys will be boys, but this is the real world and it is not clear he will make sensible decisions, or will be handled by the authorities with gentle kindness.
  • What if she gets into a nasty relationship? What if she is abused, has trouble with roommates, loses her supports? Will she call for help? Can she trust us if she is in a really bad situation?

We could go on. The fact is that psychiatric, emotional and behavioral problems are not uncommon in college or for most young adults. Fortunately most of our kids avoid them, or at least skirt them.

It's a fact that most kids have very little guidance on campus, and virtually none in the workaday world. Mental health resources are terribly sparse. The American Association for University and College Counseling Center Directors annual survey notes that for large universities there's maybe one paid professional staff person for every 3,000 students 

There is little focused education and guidance about managing personal problems. While most kids will have academic advisors and access to student health services, they rarely use them. It is viewed as a burden, an annoyance or stigmatized in their community.

So, what can parents do to deal with this situation? Here are some basic tips:

  • Talk

Most kids think they can manage on their own without involvement with parents. But regular contact is really important, not just for the kid but for you as well. Make it a scheduled phone call if you can. Then it becomes a routine — sometimes a simply check in, but often a time to run important things by you. And remember that texting is not talking. There is no substitute for hearing each other’s voices.

  • Have Discussions not Lectures

Young adults, though still immature, want to be treated as adults. They want you to hear their opinions and most of all want you to value them. (Interestingly most kids eventually adopt parental values, though they may push back as teens and young adults.) It’s never a good idea to grill them on what they are or are not doing. Ask questions. Ask for their take on things. Treat them the same way you would treat a friend, partner or colleague. If this becomes the norm, they will be much more likely to open up and ask you for advice.

  • Prepare for Rejection

It may be the first slip when your kid says he’s going home and he means back to his dorm or apartment. Or it may be that she doesn’t tell you that she’s going to her boyfriend’s house for Thanksgiving. In any case there will be moments when we all feel the pain of loss, but remember, it’s not disregarding your importance as a parent. It’s really in the service of feeling autonomous. Don’t take it personally!

  • Give At Least One or More Get-Out-Of-Jail Free Card

Kids will all screw up. You did too. It may be bombing an exam or failing a course. Or getting fired from a job. Or breaking some campus rule, like drinking in public. While getting in trouble is not OK, it’s best for kids to be able to talk about poor decision making, learn from it and hopefully not fall into the same hole again. If you are understanding and tolerant (depending on the offense, of course,) help your kid appreciate your openness. They’ll be more likely to come to you if they get in trouble again.

  • Ask About Advisors and Mentors

Whether it’s at work or in college, all kids need other adults besides you (again, prepare for feeling rejected.) But you know that even in high school, sometimes it was easier for your kid to talk with a coach, a friend’s parent or an older sibling than opens up to you. We need them to learn there are many wise folks in the world besides parents, and you won’t be here forever. It’s another path toward seeking another perspective and taking some time and thought before making a decision — particularly one made impulsively.

  • Consult Don’t Pressure

Remember, whether she is choosing a course or major, it is her decision, not yours.

You may have chosen the school, and are paying a small fortune for it, but you need to let your kid and the school advisors help craft the curriculum. Frankly, if you are able to accept reasonable choices, even though you object, it’s far more likely that she will chose something positive for her and not simply something you hate. We want our kids to be thinking proactively for themselves and not reacting to what would make you mad.

  • Help Set Up a Budget

Living independently is a great time to learn about personal finances. Your kids cannot rely on the bank of parents forever. They need to live within their means, and this involves taking stock of what they have, what they want and setting their priorities. It’s very easy for kids to get way over their heads in debt or not consider the importance of finances in adult life. We know this very well. They probably have never had to learn or live it firsthand. Now is your chance to help.

  • Broken Hearts are Inevitable

Relationships are not easy. A breakup may have happened in high school, but your kids had their rooms, siblings, you and many others in a familiar and comforting place to take solace in. In college or in an apartment with relative strangers, living through a breakup is really tough. While you want to fix it for them, you really can’t. But you can become a helpful ear and a support.

Leaving home is not easy — not for parents or our kids. But with some clear guidelines, and a little luck, we can all get through this. And, then, of course, prepare for the next set of landmarks — marriage, grandchildren and more. But let’s get through this phase first!

This blog was first posted on The Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds. For more on this, please visit the link and listen to a podcast with Drs. Beresin, Schlozman and Braaten on the Transition to College or Work.

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