Time for another “Haiku for New College Students":
No one telling me what to do
Now I have my den
Oh wait, that’s from my other poetry collection, “Haiku for Parents of New College Students." My bad.
But seriously, when you go off to college, it’s a big change for you and your family. This fact always seems to surprise students (and their parents), but it only stands to reason, right? You are learning how to take care of yourself, you’re on your own for perhaps the first time in your life, and after a semester or two, you are feeling pretty confident that things are going in a positive direction. “Sure," you say during the first semester break, “I get that I’m back home, but I’ve been without a curfew or really any other rules for months and have done just fine."
However, your parents see you, a child they’ve nurtured and protected for nearly two decades, as someone who was away for a few months — kind of like an extended summer camp. “Okay," they say, “we get that you’ve been ‘on your own,’ but it’s only been a few months and we’ve seen you several times during that stretch. Things really haven’t changed, and we still have ground rules in our home."
One of the difficult aspects of becoming an adult is realizing that people can have very different opinions, yet each of you believe the one you’re holding is correct. And that’s certainly the case here. The transition-to-college issue is probably the one about which I get the most email. The shift is stressful, it easily becomes confrontational, and people who otherwise care about each other very much end up saying and doing things they regret for a long time.
When I came home from college for the first time, the tension was palpable, and it built and built until it exploded between me and my parents late one night. Horrible things were said in both directions, and the residual anger lasted for years. My situation was hardly unique among my friends; some families made the transition more easily than others, but none had a walk in the park.
Still, the stress is manageable. Notice I didn’t say “completely avoidable," but rather manageable. When you first return home from school for an extended period of time, call a family meeting and offer up some ground rules. It will be tremendously awkward, but you’re going to have this conversation eventually. Either you can do it uncomfortably right off the bat, or you can do it in the midst of everyone yelling at each other at 2:00 in the morning. Your call, but the former seems more constructive.
Bear in mind, though, that this is a transition and these sorts of shifts don’t just happen overnight. Sit down with your family and determine which rules from your high school days have changed and which still carry the full force of parental law. This discussion should aim for compromise on everyone’s part — the only “win" is an increased chance of family harmony.
Starting college is a transition for everyone — the student, family members, friends (see Superbad). Acknowledging this upfront and talking through the issues is usually a good idea.
Seizing the bull by the horns can be of tremendous benefit to you: What better way to show that you are taking responsibility for your life than to be the one who initiates the conversation about ground rules with your parents when you’re back under their roof?
If you think being back around your family is going to be a flashpoint, there are a number of constructive ways to minimize contact time: Take an intersession course, get a part-time job, find a cool, short-term internship, volunteer somewhere, and so on. You weren’t around each other 24/7 in high school, yet I’ve heard plenty of students complain about how weird it was to be with their families all day, every day between semesters. That’s because you haven’t done it in years!
Read Jonathan Plucker's introductory article on How to Succeed in College, as well as his two most recent posts, Go to Class and Accept Responsibility. You can also check out new installments each weekday through January 15, 2016.
If you’re still in high school, you can use the free Noodle college search tool to explore 2- and 4-year institutions and learn which will be a good fit for you. Register for a free account to save school lists and share them with family, friends, and other trusted adults.