How Parents Can Coexist with Disappointed and Restless College Students
Like many college seniors, Maggie Lynch is grieving. “The hardest part has been the overwhelming feeling of loss,” she said about her disrupted final semester stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic. Lynch is hunkering down in Princeton, NJ, with her brother, sister, and parents, and struggles not to dwell on all she’s missing. Her friend Melissa MacKenzie echoed those sentiments and added her own. “The hardest thing is the uncertainty,” said MacKenzie, who lives in Peabody, MA. Though she has a job that’s set to begin in the summer, she finds the inability to plan, and the unknowability of what’s ahead, deeply troubling. Both admit to some petulance at home, especially earlier in the quarantine. “I’m sure my Mom would report that I’ve been complaining extra because of this,” MacKenzie said. During her first week home, Lynch added, she made sure her family members appreciated that her suffering trumped everyone else’s. “Ha!” Lynch said. She’s gotten past the early victimization.
Parents of college seniors also are struggling, not only over how to see beyond the miasma of national gloom, but also how to steer their young adult children effectively. The mother of a college senior who asked to remain anonymous to avoid embarrassing her son, explained how exasperating it is to live with a miserable young adult who can’t wait to escape the family home. “He continues to mope around as if he’s the only one suffering, and I’m trying not to minimize his loss,” she said. Because the boy’s classes are mandatory pass/fail, he’s free not to devote himself to his studies, allowing more time for sulking, complaining, and lobbying to go back to his off-campus apartment, which has put him at cross-purposes with his father. “It’s a daily barrage of hearing how unhappy he is,” she said.
Julie Lythcott-Haims , once the dean of freshmen at Stanford, now a guru on overparenting, has some advice for parents of disgruntled and restless college seniors. Lythcott-Haims is writing a sequel to her manifesto, How to Raise an Adult , this time for young adults themselves. She has much to offer the beleaguered among us:
Summon your empathy, parents. “These kids are legitimately grieving,” she said. Many students in their final year have been on track for college since they were eight years old, striving inside the classroom and out to maximize their college options. “We’ve raised them to believe that college is the be-all and end-all of their lives,” Lythcott-Haims told me. For seniors especially, the final semester is supposed to be the culmination of all that labor; its sudden derailment must be bewildering. “The rituals of completion and departure may seem trivial to parents, but these things really do matter,” she added. Some seniors wonder if the promise of a college degree delivering the big job and in turn the right life holds up amid COVID-19. “It’s the fantasy of the right life that’s in jeopardy,” she said. This is everything to college kids, and parents needs to dig deep and empathize.
Author Julie Lythcott-Haims
Be tough about enforcing the quarantine. College seniors are adults who need to behave just as responsibly as the rest of society. It’s not appropriate to go back and forth between houses, or to break through their “germ circle” and risk sickening others. At the same time, for their own mental health, they—and we—need to see other people. “They just have to adhere to the letter and the spirit of the rules,” she said. That means staying out of other people’s houses and cars, but allows for occasional outdoor visits or walks, provided everyone remains six feet apart.
But that doesn’t mean they have to live with their parents. For college seniors, “home” might mean an apartment in their college town or the city where they hope to land their first job. And that home might include a handful of close friends where they all can continue to be autonomous adults. “More power to them,” Lythcott-Haims said, “I love the fact that they want to be responsible for everything.” To do this correctly, of course, young adults would have to isolate themselves in their new location before convening as a group, and commit to upholding the social distance measures imposed in their area.
Keep quiet about their college assignments. “Do you want your kids to say, ‘how was your meeting? Did you do better this time?’” she asked. “No, no, no—do not ask about their schoolwork.” College seniors should not be micro-managed, and lots of prying questions from Mom and Dad send the message that parents have no confidence in their abilities. “It’s an assault to their psyches,” she said. For parents who begrudgingly gave up their hovering ways when their children went to college, be sure not to revert to old patterns. For mothers and fathers who still weigh in on their adult children’s college papers and assignments, give it up now—“the sooner the better,” she said. Be interested and supportive, but don’t nag.
Be aware that how parents and kids handle this period will shape the young adults’ path to adulthood. “How they’re behaving in the house is going to determine if they’ll thrive or wither upon exiting it,” Lythcott-Haims said. “If you treat them like children, you will have undone some of the growing up they’ve done outside the house,” she added. A good start would be to think of them as “adult offspring” rather than “children,” which can be infantilizing. Most important, she said, invite them into a family conversation about how they will join in the running of the household—not as punishment, but as an invitation to contribute. Encourage them to reorient their mindsets, and to ask themselves, “what do I need to do to make this place run?” Remind them that soon they’ll be out on their own, and that adopting a pitch-in attitude will prepare them for that next stage. Let them know how supported you feel, as their parent, when they step up and assume more responsibility.
Encourage adult offspring to adapt to the new economic environment. College seniors without jobs should approach this period as they would have before the pandemic: by looking for work now. “Don’t wait for a job in your field,” Lythcott-Haims advised them. Locate the companies that are hiring, modify your resume to suit the openings, and claim that first job—even if it’s not your dream job. Parents, urge them to adapt and move forward, so that when the internships reappear, and the economy comes back to life, they’ll be poised for the next step.
In the meantime, cheer further learning. While society remains shut, and to the extent that time allows, college seniors would do well to identify and fill some holes in their knowledge or skill set. What have they always wanted to understand, but haven’t found the time to learn? These goals needn’t be highfalutin, like reading all of Shakespeare or mastering Latin. Developing practical skills that will suit them when they’re on their own—like mastering ten recipes or assembling a tool kit and learning how to execute basic repairs—will pay dividends later. College seniors should let their future selves inform them, Lythcott-Haims said. In a year from now, what knowledge or skills would they be most pleased about having acquired?
The mother of an 18- and 20-year-old, Lythcott-Haims recognizes that prodding the overparented college senior into full adulthood is no linear venture. “This will happen in fits and starts in every household,” she said. Some seniors will be more prepared than others, depending on personality, mental health, and the extent of prior coddling. Keep at it, she advised. “We don’t want to contribute to their withering,” she said, “we want to contribute to their growth.”