Do These Pieces Still Fit Together?
Tuesday, December 19, 2006
If you're a parent, be forewarned: The homecomers may snack like locusts, sleep like vampires, treat property with the respect of marauding villagers -- yet exude such charm and sweetness that you pray they never leave.
If you're a student, you could be in for an awakening, too. You may wonder why your old room is suddenly a workout spa, why your parents consider a major in folklore impractical and why the very air at home seems to transform you into the child you were sure you'd left behind.
Ah, the joys and oys of the school-break family reunion.
Nearly 85 percent of freshmen at four-year colleges and universities ditched their familial digs in 2005, and 12.6 percent of 263,710 freshmen surveyed lived more than 500 miles from home, according to the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA. Considering that even more upperclassmen likely don't live with Mom and Dad, that means many happy -- or not-so-happy -- reunions across the country this winter break.
Parents eager to catch up may find that their child offers little family time or is reluctant to share her thoughts. When she does talk, parents may discover she's questioning their values or has chosen a lifestyle at odds with theirs. Bam: They've been fired from an 18-year job.
For students, it's sometimes hard to handle parental supervision after tasting freedom. They may be exhausted from exams and drained by the emotional, social and intellectual changes they've faced. What's more, it can be tough figuring out how to fit their new selves into their old worlds.
John Dages, senior associate director of the George Washington University counseling center, says it doesn't surprise him that student visits to clinics like his tend to rise following school breaks. College kids are at the developmental stage where they "are separating from their families, so when they go back home, quite often they're confused," Dages says. "They may feel defeated, unacknowledged and not understood."
While it's possible to ease some of the tension, hoping to eliminate it may not be realistic.
"A family is a lot like a mobile hanging in perfect balance," says Helen Johnson, a Chapel Hill, N.C., consultant who advises colleges on parent relations. "When you remove a piece, [the mobile] has to jiggle around for a while before it finds that balance again. When you have a college student, it's particularly challenging because they keep coming in and out of the family system. It's an adjustment every time."
Shukurat Adamoh-Faniyan, a junior at the University of New Orleans, has coped with the fallout of Hurricane Katrina, successfully held different jobs and chosen a major in political science and sociology. But when the 21-year-old returns home to Northeast Washington, she says, "my mom and my dad still see me as a 13-year-old. I have to remind them that I'm not the same old little girl anymore."
Like many other college students, Adamoh-Faniyan found the first trips home the toughest. Accustomed to living on her own, she started coming and going as she pleased. "It didn't work out very well," she notes. "I got grounded. I was 19, and I was like, 'You're grounding me?' It was sort of funny."
Eventually, Adamoh-Faniyan decided to have a sit-down with her parents. "I told them that I am a woman now, and I can take care of myself," she recalls. She also set out to earn their trust by helping more around the house and keeping reasonable hours. "If I wanted to be treated like an adult," she notes, "I had to behave like an adult first."
Now when she visits, she and her parents have regular meetings to share their expectations for each other. And she is much happier. "I'm a daddy's girl and a momma's girl," she admits. "When they're hurt, I'm hurt. It's much better just to communicate where each person is coming from."
The Internet and the cellphone keep parents and their college students easily linked these days; 34 percent of 939 parents surveyed by College Parents of America in March say they're in touch with their kids once a day -- or more.
So parents may think they're up to date. But then their child comes home sporting a leg-long tattoo or green hair or multiple piercings and they think: Who is this person?
It's no picnic on the quad for kids, either. They may be frightened when they find themselves drifting away from their upbringing, says Barbara Hofer, a professor of psychology at Vermont's Middlebury College, who studies relationships between college students and their parents.
Experts like Hofer offer parents some reassurance: Research indicates that students' values don't often stray far from their families'. In a 2004 survey of 800 college students, for example, the best predictor of political affiliation was that of their parents.
Hofer reassures students that what they're going through is natural. "It's okay to reconsider [your parents' values]," she says. "Though you're probably going to end up coming to someplace similar, reexamining them is a necessary part of the process of making them your own."
If kids are testing boundaries, it's best for parents to stay cool, advises consultant Johnson, co-author of "Don't Tell Me What to Do, Just Send Money: The Essential Parenting Guide to the College Years." "The smart parents don't rise to that bait of their 18-year-old basically saying, 'I have new ideas now. Just try to change me.' Instead, they say, 'That's very interesting. Tell me more about that.' Not only does this defuse the situation," notes Johnson, "but it's to parents' benefit to try to find out who this new person is."
When Marsha Rozenblit's son Mark Holum, a 21-year-old junior, visits her in Silver Spring from the University of Chicago, she loves hanging out with him, getting to know him all over again and making his favorite foods.
She does not, however, love his mess. And, on occasion, she has stepped in to make order, as she did last year when she arrived at college to pick him up and discovered he wasn't packed to leave. Mark was less than thrilled, she says.
Now she says she has begun to see that her son "needs to have me help on his terms, not on my terms. . . . In the future, I'll do that. I hope to, anyway," she adds.
It can be tough, though, admits Rozenblit. "He's still my child, even if he's no longer a child."
For parents of today's college students, letting go may be particularly hard, notes Johnson. The pressure's been on them from the get-go, starting with research suggesting they had the power to influence their children's brain development even in utero. Some baby boomer moms who abandoned demanding careers transferred their zeal to child-rearing. And because couples in this generation tended to have fewer kids, they could focus the high beam of parental attention much more intensely.
Hence, "helicopter parents," known for their hovering. According to Experience Inc., a career services firm, of more than 400 students and recent grads questioned, 25 percent said their folks were so involved in their college life that it was either annoying or embarrassing.
"I went to college and my parents' job was to get me there in the station wagon, unload me and go away," says Johnson. That has changed significantly, she notes, to the point where more than half of universities now have offices or at least one staff member dedicated to working with parents. They offer guidebooks, newsletters and workshops to help parents make the break. Most offer advice on how to smooth vacation transitions.
In the material she provides at the University of Minnesota, parent program director Marjorie Savage warns folks to expect what may seem like somnambulism from their returning students. "They've likely just finished finals and are unbelievably exhausted," Savage says. But sleep also works as a coping mechanism, she adds. "A student may wander out, eat breakfast, look around," and not know how to react to their family. "So they go back, sleep some more and figure out what they're going to do next," she says.
Great Falls mom Kathy Garner is familiar with the college bedtime story: Her two daughters often would sleep past noon during breaks, as does her 21-year-old son, Michael, when he comes home from Miami University in Ohio, where he's a senior. There were other obstacles to quality family time, too.
Sometimes, she recalls, "I thought, 'We'll have a leisurely dinner together. How nice.' Then I'd find out that they were busy getting ready to go out." Other times, she found herself waiting -- and waiting -- for her kids to hear about their friends' plans before they'd commit to a family activity.
Eventually, she and her husband hit on a new approach: They'd ask the kids in advance what they wanted to do during break and set some plans in place. Mostly, the system was great. Her husband loved the chance to play golf with Michael, for example. But it wasn't foolproof. "Sometimes we expected them to be someplace and they didn't show up, or they came late. They'd say, 'What's the big deal? I just had this other thing to do.' It was like a little attitude on their part."
So Garner tried repeated reminders, notes in the car and cellphone check-ins. Some of it even worked.
At this point, she says, "it's a compromise. . . . We've learned to let go of unimportant things, but we do spell out clearly the things we care about. And we appreciate their efforts."
Experts applaud such a balancing act. Parents should express their desires or they may wind up feeling like doormats, warns Johnson. As for the students, she says, they should remember that "one of the hallmarks of real adulthood is respecting other people's lives."
Above all, Johnson recommends that parents encourage students' growing independence.
"You wouldn't want your children to be profoundly dependent on you for their whole lives," she notes. "It's an incredible adventure to see your child develop into an adult before your eyes. . . . Enjoy the journey."
Stacy Weiner writes frequently for Health about families and relationships. Comments:firstname.lastname@example.org.