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Negotiating new roles

Parents, college-age children negotiate evolving relationship

Parents, college-age children negotiate evolving relationship

November 02, 2007|By TIFFANY ARNOLD

Robin and Carl Vogel agreed that it was unreasonable to expect their two college boys to be in by 10:30 p.m. on a weeknight.

But just because their sons, Josh, a 19-year-old sophomore at Frostburg State University, and Dustin, an 18-year-old freshman at Frostburg, got a taste of independence in college, that doesn't mean it will be a free-for-all at home.

"You go into it with the expectation that you have to set clear guidelines from the beginning," Robin Vogel said. "It's when you spring it on them at the last minute - that's when you have problems."

As college students prepare to return to their homes for Thanksgiving break after months of living on their own, many parents will be preparing for their own rite of passage: Having to deal with young adults.

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"It's sort of a shock to the system," said Terry Real, a Boston-based family therapist and author. "Generally, everybody's happy to see each other, but at the same time, they're trying to negotiate what that relationship is going to be like."

But making the change is not as difficult as many families perceive it to be, Real said.

The first step is often the hardest step - saying good-bye.

It's a process called "launching," said Carol Werlinich, director of University of Maryland's Center for Healthy Families clinic. It involves, she said, "learning to let go, knowing as a parent the lessons you taught were taught well."

Werlinich said parents have trouble with this because they think their children are more fragile than the baby chicks kicked out of the nest by the mama bird. Parents are unsure whether all their children are ready to leave the nest.

"But they indeed do fly," Werlinich said.

The process of launching isn't typically as harsh as a sudden kick from the nest. Werlinich said, ideally, parents gradually allow their children more autonomy, so that when the time comes for them to act on their own, it's an easier transition for both the parent and the young adult.

She uses the analogy of teaching a child to ride a bike.

"Eventually, you let go of the bike," Werlinich said. "They'll probably have some bruised knees, but I bet they learned to ride that bike."

Once the child has been "launched," Real said parental responses to their return typically fall somewhere between "you're already on your own, do whatever you want" and "college is college and here is here."

Robin Vogel said the transition was easier than she anticipated, especially when the oldest went away for the first time.

"I kind of opened myself up for the battle - 'I'm 18. I can do anything I want,'" Vogel said. "They didn't buck at that. We didn't have any problems."

Now, there's a flexible curfew of midnight and the boys are expected to keep their rooms clean when they're home, said Dustin Vogel, the 18-year-old freshman at Frostburg.

Dustin Vogel said he's seen kids who came from strict homes struggle once they got to college.

Anna Daniels, of Hagerstown, said she and her husband Phil are anticipating an easy transition for when their oldest child, Ashley Daniels, a freshman at Frostburg, comes home for Thanksgiving break.

"We've never really sat down and discussed any what-ifs," Anna Daniels said.

"If she wanted to stay out until 1 a.m., she probably could," she said. "She knows what we expect of her. She's not a wild child."

Werlinich said studies have shown that finding the middle ground - being authoritative parents as opposed to being permissive or authoritarian - is a more effective way of parenting.

To be authoritative, parents should agree on ground rules before their child returns from college. Setting curfews, setting rules for company and drinking are the most common issues, Real said.

Once parents set the ground rules, they should be firm. "Don't be spongy," Real said. "A lot of parents are intimidated by kids that age, but you still have leverage."

Parents can still take away cell phone and car privileges as a form of discipline.

"You have to be willing to make them feel uncomfortable," Real said.

Parents should also be willing to let go of being The Boss and shift to being The Consultant, Werlinich said.

Real said parents shouldn't try to control what their kids do - if they haven't done so already.

"You can never control a kid's behavior," Real said. "(A) human being cannot control another human being. Ask any parent who's waved their finger in front of their kid's face and said 'You cannot do or will not do this.'

"But you can control their environment. It's kind of like being a cave parent. ... This is my house, these are our values."

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