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How to Deal With a Returning College Student

My son’s back home for the summer, which means renegotiating some family rules and dynamics

By Julie Shifman

My 19-year-old-son, Ari, just arrived back home for the summer after a good freshman year at Tulane University. When he last lived with us, it was with all his high school–era restrictions. But now that he’s been on his own for a year, he expects to come home and be as independent as he was at college.
I’ve been down this road before with his three older brothers, but this time it’s different: When Ari left, the nest was emptied. My husband and I have grown to like our freedom, and I have to say, I’m not eager to return to full-time motherhood duties.
Before he got home, I spent a lot of time thinking about how to make our summer living arrangement workable, acceptable and — dare I hope? — pleasurable. I knew it would have to start with a three-way negotiation: between Ari, his father and me. I figured I'd be the one imposing all the restrictions, but in the process, I realized something that surprised me: It’s not Ari who would have to do all the compromising.
How to Negotiate with a Returning College Student
I started my planning the way I start any project: I made a list. I wrote down literally everything that I could imagine becoming a problem or annoyance. Nothing was too small to consider. Case in point: Taking the last cold Diet Dr. Pepper from the fridge without restocking the supply (something my darling son did his first night home).
This may seem trivial to 99.99 percent of humanity, but to me, I’m slightly embarrassed to admit, it’s huge. So to the list I added, “Always replace what you drink.” Then it dawned on me: I needed to keep more than one soda in the fridge at a time because I wouldn’t be the only one drinking it this summer.
While it can be easy for us parents to create a “list of demands,” we have to remember that our kids are adults in their own right, and they deserve a good summer, too. And if I’m going to have a happy, healthy relationship with a grown son, I’m going to need to stop thinking of him as my baby. With that in mind, I realized I needed to involve Ari in the negotiations and that together we would co-created a list that could work for all of us.
Summer Rules That Work for Everyone 

  • Cleanliness: I am now used to a tidy house, and he’s messy. We compromised by agreeing that shared spaces have to be kept neat, but he could do whatever he wanted in his room.
  • Food: For 10 months, my pantry and refrigerator have been devoid of the things a typical 19-year-old boy would eat (e.g., chips, cold cuts). I don’t want to grocery shop every day and cook dinner every night, but I realize a kid's got to eat. So we agreed that we each would shop once a week (for our personal choices as well as shared items, like milk and bread) and three nights a week, I'd cook food we'd collectively bought. The rest of the time, he'd be on his own.
  • Curfew: We agreed that he wouldn’t have a specific one, like he did in high school, but that he would always let us know where he was and what time to expect him (even if that was 2 a.m.).
  • Alcohol: We decided that he could drink beer and wine in our house as long as he wouldn’t be driving. His friends could not drink at our house.
  • Appearance: He agreed to be presentable anytime I “needed” him to be (e.g., brunch at his grandmother’s), but beyond that, he could wear whatever he wanted. I further consented to (try to) not get on his case about “the freshman 15.”  
  • Working: He committed to looking for full-time summer work; I committed to letting this be his issue and not nag him about it.
  • Sleeping In: Or in my vernacular “wasting half the day.” I agreed not to bug him about this as long as he didn’t have to be anywhere.

Week 2: Walking Our Talk
Once the oral arguments were heard, the next step was getting it in writing (lesson No. 1 in contract law). Inevitably, someone will violate one of the negotiated terms and claim that it had never been discussed. Having it in writing constitutes evidence that will stand up in a court of law.

Anticipating potential conflict, I turned to a trusted old source. No, not my law books, but my go-to authority when the kids were younger and I was struggling with toddler behavior issues: How to Talk So Kids Will Listen by Adele Faber. As hoped, I discovered that Faber’s suggestions for talking (and, more important, listening) to a 2-year-old were completely appropriate for a 19-year-old.
I knew just writing up a list didn't insure that we'd all adhere to it all the time, and I wanted to establish a policy for dealing with issues that might/were likely to arise this summer — and I needed to be reminded of effective communication methods. Faber advocates something called the “repeat back” strategy. So when Ari says, “Stop telling me that my face is oily and I need to wash it,” I am to respond calmly, “I hear that you don’t like it when I tell you to wash your face.” This helps keep negative communication to a minimum — and led to another item for our list (“No nagging about Ari’s face”).
Surely you’ve seen the “Far Side" cartoon about what we say to dogs and what they hear. In the cartoon, a man is haranguing a poor hound, but all it hears is “Blah, blah, blah, Rover, blah, blah, blah.” Our kids are like that dog, so it’s important for us to be succinct and to the point: “Please don’t leave dishes in the sink. Clean them up now.” Period, walk away, no long-winded diatribe — which will just be tuned out and probably lead to an argument about when he was 10 and left all his sports gear out in the rain.
Stepping Out of the Mommy Role
He’s my son, but he’s not me. If he wants — or needs — to be an irresponsible 19-year-old for a little while, I have to let him. The conversation we had his first morning back was an eye-opener. Ari said: “I got home at midnight after driving 12 hours. And the first thing I hear today is, ‘Get a job, get a job, get a job.’ Let me be irresponsible for at least a week before you start the whole nagging thing.”
The kid had a point. I did do that to him, and considering he had just finished a tough week of exams right before the long drive home, I should have let him decompress a little.
Here’s the thing that I think is the hardest for parents to get. As Karen Coburn puts it in her book Letting Go, A Parent’ Guide to Understanding the College Years, many young adults have to go through a period of distancing before they can reconnect comfortably with their parents on more mutual terms.
She retells the story of a mother who lamented of her daughter: “Libby used to tell me everything. But last summer when she came home, it was as though she had put the curtain down between us. She barely spoke to me. But I kept telling myself that there was a method to her madness, that she really needed to pull back from me.”

Just as our adult children need to reinvent themselves and their roles within the family, so do we parents need to shapeshift. Ari's return is already teaching me that I need to let go of some of my own ingrained, reflexive parenting behaviors. Those were — appropriately — established to raise and protect a young child. But he's not a child anymore, and he doesn't need a full-time mother nudging and nagging him all the time. 
Slowly, I’m getting it. I know it’s time for Ari (my baby!) to pull away. I can’t say it’s an easy transition for either of us, but I do know that negotiating with him like an adult has been a big step in the right direction — for all of us.
Are you dealing with a prodigal freshman? Share your experiences and suggestions here.

Julie Shifman is an inspirational keynote speaker, career coach and the author of Act Three: Create the Life You Want, which is available on and in bookstores. You can buy a signed copy at her website. Read More
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