McNerney: Dealing With the Returning College Student

By Neil McNerney, Parenting With Purpose

It’s that time of year when college students return home after nine months away. This year definitely has been different since many students spent part of the year at home. Regardless, the transition back home can be stressful on parents and annoying for students. As a family counselor who has worked with this issue for decades, I would like to share some ideas to make the transition as smooth as possible.

They are exhausted. The last few weeks of any college experience is exhausting. They have dealt with the stresses and lack of sleep that exams produce. They had to say goodbye to friends for the summer. They have also had to move their life out of a dorm or apartment. Moving is one of the top 20 stressors that adults experience, and they must do it twice a year. So cut them some slack for the first week or so as they recover from this.

Their friends may seem more important than you. Most college students have two sets of friends: Home Friends and College Friends. They have spent the last few months with their college friends, and now it’s time to reconnect with their home friends. This might feel like they don’t want to spend time with you. They might go from sleeping until 2pm to immediately leaving to spend the rest of the day with their home friends. Although this might hurt, it is normal. Our kids know that we will always be there for them, but they will only be around their home friends for a short period of time. As the summer progresses, this will decrease, and I assure you that you will get some time with them.

They are used to being answerable to no one. In college, there is little to no answerability to anyone. They can come and go as they please. They can sleep as long as they want and stay up as long as they want. It is a shock to the system to come home to the same rules and expectations imposed on them in high school. Be prepared for some pushback on this.

Here are a few ideas on how to make the transition as smooth as possible for everyone:

Relax the curfew expectations. Many conflicts during this time are focused on when the student can return home in the evening/morning. The arguments tend to focus on these themes: College student: “I’m an adult and I’ve been on my own for a while now. I’m perfectly capable of managing my evenings.” Parent: “As long as you live in my house, you follow my rules.” 

Since this column is being read by the parents, my suggestion only focuses on you. My suggestion: Lighten up. Lighten up on your expectations. Lighten up on your curfew. You have extremely few days left with you son or daughter. Don’t waste that time arguing over stuff that won’t have a good outcome. 

Instead, I would suggest that you have a conversation with your student about why it’s important to you that you know they are home. It could be peace of mind, etc. See if you can get cooperation instead of turning it into a conflict. 

Be open to different opinions and ideas. Your student has been away learning at a very high level. They have been (hopefully) learning how to think critically and have been spending time with peers of different races, religions, countries, cultures, orientations, and political leanings. It is very likely that they will return with different views on things than when they left. They might be excited to share these ideas with you. Keep in mind, though, that they are probably not well versed in these ideas and might be clumsy in expressing them. I would ask for patience with them as they practice expressing their newly learned ideas. Be curious about their concepts and try to get them to talk more about it.

However, some of their ideas might run counter to what they learned at home, or their ideas might not yet be fully formed. Be gentle with them. Confronting them with the holes in their argument or challenging the basis of their ideas will not help in their growth. Keep in mind that they are young adults with a unique perspective on their world. The more we stay curious and open to their thoughts, the more likely they will want to stay connected to us.

Although there are many pitfalls during this time of students returning, we can make it an amazing time if we are gentle in our approach and remember that the person returning in May is different than the person that left in September.


Neil McNerney

Neil McNerney is a licensed professional counselor and author of Homework – A Parent’s Guide To Helping Out Without Freaking Out! and The Don’t Freak Out Guide for Parenting Kids with Asperger’s. He can be reached at neil@neilmcnerney.com

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