Coping with kids returning home from university

Girl working on laptop

I remember, as if it were yesterday, tearful telephone conversations with my friend as she anticipated her first born child leaving home, bound for a University a few hours drive away from home. Between sobs, she shared her worries about how he would fend for himself, whether he would eat enough “proper” food and how many hours of sleep he would get each night. She reminisced about tucking him into bed when he was younger and even said she’d miss having to drag him out of bed in the morning. As each day passed into weeks and then months, so my friend learnt to cope with seeing him sporadically. In fact, she guiltily admitted – not so long ago -to even having come to enjoy the extra space to spread out in the house and to not having to cater to his discriminating palate. More recently, she called me in a panic – “I can’t believe I’m saying this,” she whispered, “but I’m almost counting the days until he goes back to University again!” I reassured her that she was not alone. That many parents who are at first anxious and mourning the separation between themselves and their children, eventually get to the point of desperately seeking strategies to cope with how to successfully integrate their children back into their lives. Here are some pointers:

1. Revisit old rules and expectations. If your child has lived away for several months, she has come to experience freedom and independence beyond what she has ever known before. She was able to come and go as she pleased without asking permission. So, when she returns home, she too will be struggling with having to live by old rules and conditions. So, now is a good time to revisit the old and consider revising what once was. Should a curfew still be in effect? What are your expectations about connecting as a family – to eat dinner together, for example?

2. Create new rules that everyone can live by. Mutual respect is key. When your almost adult child complains about having to tell you when he will return home at night, remind him that these rules are not just meant for parents and children. In most homes, even spouses share when they expect to return home. How else would one know when to begin sending out a search party!

3. Tidy up after oneself. Another basic rule that I think helps to maintain a healthy family unit is to remember to tidy up after oneself. So long as you model this too, you might want to suggest that so long as everyone picks up after him or herself, that there will not be as much work for the primary picker upper. So, for example, if a family member takes the last bag of milk out of the plastic bag in the fridge, he or she should throw the bag out. Or, if someone takes a blanket to lie underneath while lying on the couch to watch TV, that person should return the blanket to its original spot.

4. Finish what you start. Another rule that works well requires that family members finish what they start. So, if a family member is in the process of organizing their collection of cd’s when they receive an invitation to go out for the afternoon, it would helpful if he or she complete sorting through and putting away the cd’s before they leave. Keeping on task and free from distractions can be difficult but if not adhered to, can leave a whole bunch of loose ends untied, often creating chaos for a family living together.

5. Baby steps towards more family time. Even though your son or daughter may have been living with a group of other students for months, he or she would most likely have had a lot of personal time and space, free of interruptions, requests or nagging. There may be a period of adjustment as you try to wean them away from solitary confinement behind a closed door and encourage them to hang out with the family. Adjust your expectations as you prepare for this. Lure them out of their rooms with the smell of their favourite chocolate chip cookies wafting from the kitchen or the sound of their favourite television program that you used to love watching together.

6. Acknowledge this period of adjustment and share your feelings. Instead of pretending that everything is exactly as it once was, acknowledge how things have changed. Let your child know that you realize that he or she has had the opportunity to be independent and that you are proud of how he or she has risen to the challenge. Share how challenging it is for you too to revisit and revise old rules and expectations and to find new ways of living together. If this is true for you, share how difficult it is to be spending so little time together after such a prolonged time apart.

7. Bite your tongue. There are times when you are going to want to say things like “things were so much more peaceful when you were gone. I’d love to pack your bags and drive you back today.” Bite your tongue. You will likely regret what you say. Instead, let your child know that you are extremely frustrated, angry, hurt (or whatever else you might be feeling) and that you need some time to think things through. Then take time out until you feel more prepared to talk things through calmly.

8. Allow him to reclaim his old space. If you’ve transformed his bedroom into your computer room or sewing nook, try to switch it back to what it was before he left home. Otherwise, he’ll think that you couldn’t wait to get rid of him. This could lead to feelings of resentment.

9. Change is good. Even though your child may have changed somewhat, to the point of wanting to assert herself and challenge what she once accepted, relish these changes and try to re frame them so that you can see the positive. So long as you can work as a team towards implementing rules that everyone can live by and continue to acknowledge the transitional challenges, you may find that these changes are for the good.

10. This too shall pass. Rest assured that with time, and a few minor tweaks, you’ll settle into a comfortable rhythm soon. Before long, you’ll be anticipating your child’s departure with some trepidation and counting the days until his or her return home again!