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Leaving for College? Why Families Argue More Right Before the Separation

Tips for coping with your college-bound adolescent's sudden irritability.

As rising college freshmen around the country excitedly start packing their bags for college, their parents begin the annual struggle to cope with this new phase of their own lives. There are differences, of course, in a parent's reaction to the departure of a first child, an only child, or the last of the brood; but feelings of sadness and anxiety—even some depression—are normal and expected responses to a child's departure from the nest. It's also normal to feel other non-traditional parental emotions. Envy, for example, is far more common than most of us like to admit. As one mother told me, "His life is just starting. Mine feels like it's coming to an end. He's got all of this wonderful adventure in front of him. I wish I was there again, too!!"

In my next posts, I will talk about finding your way through the jungle of advice directed at parents of college children. For example, contrary to popular opinion, there is a difficult balance between holding on too tight and letting go too completely that both parents and youngsters struggle with. But first I'd like to address the very common, and often completely unexpected, phenomenon that occurs during the weeks before the separation: the kind of arguing, fighting, and bickering that is captured by the wonderful title of a book written for parents of adolescents: Get Out of My Life, but First Will you Drive Cheryl and Me to the Mall (1).

Every August clients whose children are at this stage of life express horror at how much they are fighting with their youngsters. "We fight over whether or not she's going to take an extra pillow with her," said one mother, "and over what time she's going to come home for dinner. And over when she's going to call her best friend. Things we fought about when she was younger and things we've never fought about before; and things that don't even make sense to me! Why does she keep picking fights?"

I understood the feeling, both from personal experience and years of working with other clients who described much the same thing. Just when you are feeling sad and vulnerable about the upcoming separation from your beloved child, it seems like anything you say or do can provoke a fight. You feel like an innocent victim of your almost-college-student's unpredictable irritability. And in a way, that's exactly what you are. As if it were not enough that you are struggling with your own sadness and multiple anxieties about sending this not-yet-adult out to fend for him or herself, you are also expected to cope with their irritability and self-centeredness, which often seems to reach record heights in the period before they leave.

One thing that helps, I have found, is to remember that much of this storm of unpleasantness is your adolescent's way of managing her or his own conflicting feelings about leaving the security of home. Excited she may be; but she is also frightened and anxious and doesn't know how to manage this odd and confusing mix of feelings. He may know that he is worried about being homesick; but it is more likely that he simply feels irritable and eager to get away. And so he starts to bicker with his parents and siblings, who automatically fight back. The weeks before my own child left for college were filled with battles that seemed to come from nowhere and enveloped our entire household. If he wasn't arguing with me about something, he was butting heads with his dad; and if he wasn't fighting with either of us, he was furious that we had somehow misunderstood something he said or were acting like he was a stupid child and always telling him what to do.

Just when I was feeling that I would be very happy to see him go, he said, "You know what this is about, don't you? It's so that it won't hurt you so much when I leave." I had to laugh. He was right, of course. Fortunately, I had the good sense not to insist that it might be doing the same thing for him. His insight did not stop the fighting, but it did help us manage our arguments a little better.

Carl Pickhardt, my colleague on the PT website, says that fighting with their parents is a way that adolescents have of differentiating themselves from their parents and practicing putting their own ideas and thoughts into action (e.g., through opposition). So these difficult conflicts can be adaptive, even though they can also be draining.

Knowing that these unpleasant interactions serve an important purpose does not mean that you should simply allow your nearly grown child to ride roughshod over you, since that would be as unhelpful as it was when they were younger. Remembering that this conflict is a normal part of the process of separating—important, necessary, but painful—can also help parents set realistic and reasonable boundaries. For example, arguing is allowed, but cruelty is not—on either side. Finding ways to listen to one another is crucial. Compromising is extremely important. And making up (over and over and over again) is also vital.

The good news is that as these youngsters go off to college and gradually grow into the young men and women that they are becoming, the arguing often diminishes. My son, for example, was far less irritable by the middle of his freshman year; and with each subsequent year of college, as he established himself as a separate person from his Dad and me he became consistently more rational, affectionate, and easy to be around. As their separate identities become more consolidated, older adolescents don't have to pull away quite so hard. Of course, then there's graduation. For many youngsters, the pressure of senior year of college opens up all of the anxieties of separation, growing up, and being on their own. Once again, arguments with parents can be a sign of anxiety about separating. And just when you are enjoying your new, child-free life, there's the very real possibility that your college graduate may come home again. But that's another story.


1.Get Out of My Life, but First Could You Drive Me & Cheryl to the Mall: A Parent's Guide to the New Teenager, Revised and Updated, by Anthony E. Wolf Ph.D.