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Q & A with Deborah W. Paris: Parenting College Students Who Are Home

The coronavirus and quarantine have abruptly ended spring semester for our college and high school students, who have suddenly found themselves back home. How do parents support their teens during this difficult transition? How do we maintain household rules without clashing with kids home from college and high schoolers stuck in the house? Your Teen asked Deborah W. Paris, a licensed social worker and psychotherapist in Shaker Heights, Ohio for advice on how best to support our young adults.

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Q: What do we do with college kids who are now home for the rest of the semester?

Paris: First, college is developmentally the age of differentiation, individualization, and developing a self-identity. There is a fair amount of testing, experimentation, and acting out. Who they are now is not how they are going to turn out. This is a developmental stage that they are navigating. Second, this circumstance isn’t what they want, and it isn’t what you want. We want to support this important developmental step—without bringing in behavior that is antithetical to family and home life. That is where the clash comes. They were working things out in college in a way that had privacy and peers and a surrounding that could permit this. Coming back into the bosom of the family is both coming into a different kind of community and also a regressive community where we regress as parents and they regress as children.

Q: How do we support them but let them know they’re back in our house now?

Paris: That adversarial position of “We are the parents and you are the kid, so do what I say” has a place in development but not necessarily in this stage of development. The kids didn’t want to come home and you probably didn’t want them to come back home. The conversation now is what makes sense in terms of respecting the community in which they are living right now. Something like “As much as we all love each other, this is uncomfortable for everybody. Nobody is in the place they want to be.”

Q: Our kids have had total freedom, but now they’re back home. How do we discuss limits on freedom?

Paris: Remember, you are trying to mobilize an internal thing in your child. If your child is engaging in disruptive behavior such as staying out late, waking family members or the dog up, and making you worry at 3 a.m., what you want to do is to mobilize an internal piece of him that says “Ugh, I am waking up my parents every night.” Try this: “I am going to ask you if you are going to be out late to let us know. That can be a once in a while thing.” Identify the negative feelings your child may have and acknowledge you understand it is uncomfortable for them to have to think about everybody else in the household.

Q: For parents who feel they are back to having to monitor schoolwork again, what do you recommend?

Paris: Parents need to understand it isn’t about them, it’s about the kid. The monitoring that you did in high school was not so you would continue to be monitors in college but so that they would develop some self-reliance, self-control, and self-structure. A more benign intervention is this: “I know you have been handling this at school; we are going to trust you to do this in a way that works for you and is appropriate.” Then you have to handle your own anxiety about it. We have to let them figure this out and respect that they are developing as people and trust them some, even when you see behavior that is so antithetical to what you want them to end up as.

Q: Is it a fair negotiation to say to your kid “It would make me feel better if you did this?”

Paris: No, that is not a successful negotiation. You can get them to do it, but what is the mastery piece in that for your child? Do you want them to please someone else, as opposed to figuring out what works for them? Try this: “College is about figuring out what works for you. In high school you didn’t have to figure that out so much because you had all the guidelines. What we would like you to do is take a look at what is productive for you and where you succeed the way you want to succeed. We need to give you some space to do that and that is hard for us.” It’s true that kids cannot learn about themselves if we do not let them learn about themselves. It is hard. It can mean letting someone blow it.

Q: How do parents deal with a kid who is miserable being at home?

Paris: This will be an ongoing conversation that must be mutually respectful. It works better if you acknowledge what in them you need to respect—and not just demand what respect you feel you deserve. Acknowledge their negative feelings. Something like “I know you love us but don’t want to be home right now. There is no way this is how you envisioned college. This is very disappointing and challenging for all of us. We want to respect that you need autonomy and to figure out how to do things on your own—at the same time as you are living in the community of your family.”

Define that you both have something going on here that is challenging and that neither of you wants. There isn’t a road map here for what to do, other than more listening and giving them an opportunity to be heard. We as parents are very anxious about the behavior we are seeing, and we want to lay down the law. You can lay down the law all you want, but it isn’t going to work.

Everyone is new to this. This is a problem none of us has had to solve before.

So listen, respect each other, and then we go from there. This may be just part one of the conversations we have in the coming weeks.

Susan Borison, mother of five, is the founder and editor of Your Teen Media. Because parenting teenagers is humbling and shouldn’t be tackled alone.

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