teens - college
Are You Prepared for the Changing Family Dynamics When Your College Kid Comes Home?

Are You Prepared for the Changing Family Dynamics When Your College Kid Comes Home?

The summer I sent my last child off to college seemed to go faster than most. Before we knew it, we were getting ready to send one, then another child off to their respective schools. A week in between move-in days made it possible to focus on each of them, one at a time, but made for a very busy August. With last minute purchases and packing, there was little time to dwell on what all this meant, which was a good thing. Having nine years between the first and last leaving for college gave me lots of time to think about this day. Fortunately, I knew what emotions to expect.

Of course I cried while driving away from the college, even knowing the next year would be different. The second year is easier. But that first day, coming home and looking into now two empty bedrooms, was a challenge. Though this was my fourth time as a parent of a college freshman, I was faced with uncharted waters. For the first time in my adult life, there were no daily parenting responsibilities. With just me and the dogs, the house is eerily quiet. I am oblivious to the local school calendar (this I actually enjoy, especially the lack of early morning alarms).

Over the years, I have learned that sending kids to college changes the family dynamics. Even knowing this, the reality always manages to catch someone unawares. The first time my oldest came home from college, I was surprised by how different things were. As she settled into dorm life, we all arrived at a new normal. When she came home, we all were unsettled by the almost imperceptible differences. Relationships had changed, in very small but noticeable ways. Her experiences had changed her, and her absence caused a shift in our routine, which in turn changed the relationships of those still in the house. Her siblings had matured, too, but her perception of them had stayed the same. (This, I noted repeated each time one left and came home.)

On one early visit home, my youngest commented how she didn’t really think about things at home changing, as if she almost expected they would stay exactly the same as when she left. I hadn’t thought about it in that way, but her perceptions were spot on. That is exactly what happens. When one leaves, one focuses on their new experiences, not on what is left behind. I did the same thing when I went away to college; it didn’t occur to me that life went on without me (that is, until there were events and vacations I missed and heard stories about later).

Adjusting to the new dynamics can be a challenge. The college calendar is such that you finally get used to their absence, then your child comes home. But, the child who comes home is not the same child you dropped off at school. This one acts more like an adult and resists being treated like a child. Conversations take a different tone, parents know less (usually just for a few years) and house rules are challenged. Routines have changed (as they frequently do), but no one has clued in the college kid who is bound to disrupt it.

Parents have to struggle with the idea that maybe, their child knows more than they do on some topics. They are no longer the awe-inspiring, all-knowing authorities they were just a few short months ago. Sibling relationships change as well. The older ones may not be idolized anymore, and the younger ones are not as impressionable anymore. The typical arguments don’t go away (who gets to ride shotgun, for example), but they are somehow different. Sometimes the jockeying for attention gets more intense. Alliances shift. They understand each other more (or sometimes less, depending on the topic). Roles change.

Parenting an adult is much, much different from parenting a child. Physical separation makes this fact more noticeable, more dramatic. The emotional shifts can be strong and swift. In a short span, you can be incredibly frustrated at their stubborn insistence that they know more than you do (after all, even I still sometimes need advice and support from my parents) and then experience the physical feelings that go along with intense pride at who they have become. They will always be your children, but they have also somehow become adults. It is difficult to achieve the correct balance, to learn to guide without controlling, to advise without meddling.

As the last child left for college, I realized that though we had experienced this before, this time, it was different. This time, I was the one left behind, remembering the children they were and waiting to see the adults they would become. They all return from time to time, and while they continue to change and grow, some things stay the same. I can count on there being some competition, some interrupting, a couple disagreements, some conspiring, and occasionally a lot of giggles.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *