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Kids-Home-From-College Summertime Blues

Our columnists answer reader questions about sticky situations

By Elizabeth Fishel and Jeffrey Arnett

“When Sam left for college,” said a friend, “I cried for three days. But then one morning, I woke up in my quiet, empty house and realized that his freedom is my freedom. I started enjoying my new life.” 
Whatever mixed feelings you had when your grown-up kids departed for college, you may greet their summer return home with similar ambivalence.

Yes, your newly-refilled nest may have livelier energy and conversation as old friends come by and heart-to-hearts take place — at least when your college student looks up from texting. You notice the small changes that show your grown child is taking those all-important steps to become an adult: he offers to make a salad for dinner, she volunteers to pick up relatives from the airport, they go out to work at their summer jobs and ask you about your day when they get home.

Those are the positive signs that you’ve helped nurture a soon-to-be fully independent young adult.

(MORE: 5 Steps to Survive Your Adult Child's Return Home)
But what about the other signs, the worrisome ones — the missed family dinners, the late night returns home without a call, the half-eaten burritos turning moldy by the TV?

Just when you've finally gotten used to the serene peace, relative tidiness, reduced chores and an "anything-goes" approach to planning of a household built for two (or just one), living again with your home-from-college grown child can be a rude awakening.
Although the summer’s half over, it’s not too late for the strategies we explore below in answer to parents’ most frequently asked questions. Before too long, college will start up again, and in between the sighs of relief, you might even find yourself missing your summer roommate.
Q: Our son and daughter are both home from college for the summer, and though we enjoy their company, what strikes us most— and not in a good way — is their sense of entitlement about our apartment. They have taken “mi casa es su casa” to the extreme — playing loud music day and night, hosting frequent, last minute, late-night parties for friends, and expecting that we’ll still be cooking all their meals as if they were little kids. Help!
A: Many parents imagine that once their kids come home from college, they’ll instantly turn into responsible and generous adults, offering to cook, clean and take the dog to the vet with no prompting. Alas, it doesn’t happen that fast.

(MORE: When Your Twentysomething Hasn't Grown Up)

It’s probably time for a sit-down with your kids where you explain today’s facts of life to them: You’re now four adults living together, and everyone has to pitch in.


Be specific about your expectations — help with shopping or making dinner, emptying the trash or mowing the lawn. What’s more, you need to be aware of and respect one another’s needs and timetables (e.g. no techno music or unannounced impromptu parties after 9 p.m.). In return, you’ll play your Dylan records quietly and let them know when your book club is coming over for a potluck.
Q: My husband and I work full-time, while our college-age son has a part-time summer job. He gets back earlier than we do, and we don’t appreciate coming home to a house in full chaos — pizza boxes scattered everywhere, sports gear in the living room, wet bathing suit left on the bathroom floor. How do we set some standards and avoid arguments?

A: Definitions of “clean” tend to skew between the generations: dishes left in the sink (not in the bedroom or on the living room floor) may be considered tidy by an emerging adult and offensive to parents.

(MORE: The Bill of Rights for Parents of Adult Children)

Be upfront about how you’d like the house to greet you when you return home: dishes in the dishwasher or washed by hand, garbage tossed, personal belongings in bedrooms. Sometimes oblique communication (an email or Post-It reminder on the fridge) works better than full-on confrontation.
Q: We expected that our daughter would be living with us this summer between her freshman and sophomore years of college. What we didn’t expect was that her boyfriend would be over here night and day as well. To be perfectly blunt: We’re not crazy about him and don’t think he’s good for our daughter. What can we say or do?
A: It’s upsetting to see your precious daughter dating someone you think is not worthy of her. If you’re puzzled or concerned about her choice of a partner, try looking at the relationship from her point of view and asking, “What’s it providing that I’m not seeing?” Just considering the question reframes your perspective from criticism to greater empathy.
When you do see something truly troublesome, it works best to comment on the behavior observed, not on the person in question.

Instead of, “I don’t think that person is right for you,” consider, “When I see the two of you together, I notice that….” For instance, “He puts you down” or “He interrupts you.” Sticking with observations rather than sweeping judgments gives your daughter room to explain or reassess things for herself — or tell you to back off.
That said, you need to feel comfortable in your own house, so perhaps there will be evenings or family outings that are “boyfriend-free.”
What are your concerns about being a parent to your 18- to 29-year-olds? Leave us a question in the comments section below or email us privately, and we’ll do our best to answer in a future column. Thanks!

Elizabeth Fishel is the author of five nonfiction books including Sisters and Getting To 30: A Parent’s Guide to the 20-Something Years (with Jeffrey Arnett).  She has contributed to numerous magazines including Vogue, Ms., New York, The Writer, and Oprah's O.  She has written for Next Avenue since 2014. Read More
Jeffrey Arnett is the co-author of Getting to 30: A Parent's Guide to the 20-Something Years. Arnett is a professor in the Department of Psychology at Clark University. Read More
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