I'm staring at a glass, turned upside down and wedged between the cushions of the only chair in our family room that's in decent condition, untarnished from the cat's perpetual clawing. Thankfully, the glass is empty. It's been left there by my daughter, who has returned home from college. The glass embodies some struggles I've faced adjusting to my young adult's feeling of independence, after having lived on her own. Last summer, after her first year of college, there were a plethora of glasses left around the house, dishes in the sink and a mountain of dirty laundry dropped at the front door, along with loud singing well into the twilight hours. My daughter's breathtaking singing voice ordinarily would delight, not bother me. But I'm less enthused hearing it at 2AM.
When your child heads back home for the summer after spending a year away at college, there is invariably jubilation, hugs and heartwarming greetings. But that initial euphoria can turn to tension as your young adult demands full independence, yet acts more like a child than before he or she left. "The reunion can be kind of jarring for both sides," says Carl Pickhardt, a psychologist who writes the blog, Surviving Your Child's Adolescence for Psychology Today and is author of the forthcoming book, Boomerang Kids. When a child returns home, the family often regresses into the pattern of the way things were before they left, he said. The child is expecting that, because they've been on their own, they'll be granted more independence, but the parent reverts back to the old control and supervision mode, he said. "So they're now asking where the kid is going and when they'll be back and the kid is saying 'I'm too old for that.'"
At one of my recent coffee klatches, my friends with college students were venting. One mom was frustrated that her son expected her to make his breakfast and only showed up again for dinner. She lamented that he would either stay out all night without letting her know where he was, leaving her to worry, or, even worse, wake her up at 1:30 in the morning to ask if he could sleep at a friend's house. Another mother said her son left cheese stick wrappers by the sofa and that his friends would routinely polish off all the snack food. One mom lamented that her daughter drove off in the family car without checking to see if others needed it. A friend has coined the term "daughter jaw" for her college-student-induced jaw clenching.
Rather than confront my daughter, I often seethed silently, since I feared jeopardizing the wonderful relationship we achieved as we survived her tumultuous teenage years. But Pickhardt said I was just as much to blame for the situation, by not setting rules right from the start. He said that parents must establish realistic expectations of how their child should behave before they set foot in the door. You could say, for example, "When you come back to live for the summer, this is what we want to have happen and this is how you should act," working with them to agree on acceptable responsibilities. Parents should avoid a one-way relationship, where they've constantly taking care of their young adult, but the child doesn't feel obliged to do anything in return. The child has to understand as long as they're living under your roof, they must comply with your terms, Pickhardt said. And that means surrendering some of the independence they experienced while at school.
Though he believes a curfew is unnecessary, he said your son or daughter should be required to keep you notified about when they're leaving and returning, so you won't have to wait up and worry. They should also be responsible for helping with weekly chores, like driving younger siblings to activities or cooking meals. If the house rules are violated, parents should impose penalties. Setting some clear ground rules can mitigate summer's emotional fallout and also help you successfully navigate and strengthen your constantly redefined relationship with your children as they grow older.
As for my daughter, she's come a long way since last summer. She washed her own dishes, volunteered to cook dinner and drove her younger sister to guitar without complaint when she was home recently. But she ultimately realized she's happiest when living by her own rules. She's found a summer job at her college -- where she's liberated from our restrictions.
Julie Halpert is co-author of Making Up With Mom, a public speaker and a freelance journalist with more than two decades of experience writing for such publications as Newsweek, The New York Times, iVillage, Parents, Family Circle and AARP Bulletin.
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