As we enter the third winter of the Covid pandemic, maintaining good relationships with our kids is so critical, given the impact that it’s had on mental health. For reference, the pandemic has literally doubled the rate of both anxiety and depression for teens and young adults. They may not be able to communicate this effectively, though, as their mastery over their emotional states and self-understanding is not fully developed, particularly if they have moved off somewhere away from home to attend a college or university with pandemic stipulations on living and attending classes. In other words, they have the increased need for connection and attachment but are more restricted in their ability to obtain it. So what can a parent do to alleviate this tension?
1. Recognize that you are their parent: At that age, they are typically very eager to ‘strike it out on their own’ and achieve the independence and autonomy that have typically been only rationed to them for the first two decades of their lives. Acknowledging that hovering over their shoulders, while well-meaning, might simple create intransigence. The simple recognition of this reality of parent/child dynamic is a big step towards establish a more healthy and productive situation for them. It isn’t a strange or unusual dynamic, and it is certainly not a signal that you are somehow a bad or overly-nosey parent. You just care deeply about what happens to them. When my daughter says, “Don’t worry, Dad.” I say, “I’m a parent, it’s my job to worry.” Indeed, it is our job as a parent to worry, but we have to be conscious of the impact of this worry, and use it strategically and not indulgently. It’s a key distinction.
2. Care Packages: When I was at boarding school and in the early years of college, my father used to send me care packages with Ramen, Goldfish crackers, Twizzlers, and other candy and snacks. I remember how much that meant to me, as it was a subtle reminder that someone out there supported my efforts at this big, fun, scary new place. It’s a deceivingly simple exercise but with a big impact. Your care package doesn’t need to be exciting and elaborate. It could just be simple and functional, perhaps include practical things like toothpaste and laundry detergent. But making any small effort to send something sends a powerful message without being aggressive about it.
3. Be Available, But not just on Your Time: This one may be hard, but it is crucial. My mother was a politician, and was only available when not speaking with constituents, and only when she wasn’t in session or in an election. This was often when I needed her, but she wouldn’t answer her phone when I called, or be there, present and available in critical emotional ways in those moments. However, when she was in the political offseason, she would call me several times a day attempting a connection when I was wrapped up in my own responsibilities. I get it, this modern life is a bear, and any balance between family life and professional life is a farce. (Anyone who tells you it’s possible should be popped in the face.) But if you can at least meet them halfway by being at least a little bit conscious of when they are free psychically, emotionally and logistically, and try to bend your schedule and availability even just a little bit for them, it will go a long way. All they need is to see you make an effort.
4. Maintain Stability at Home: Basically the moment i left for college, my parents began making major life changes: moving houses, swapping out spouses, starting new jobs & hobbies. It was as if they were exhaling after 18 years of holding it all in, and they were so I can certainly respect it. But though I wouldn’t judge it, it definitely had a profound psychological impact on me. When I returned home for breaks, it was to different houses and different family dynamics. It was a not-so-subtle reminder that I couldn’t go back to the previous life I had left. I understand, being a parent requires a ton of life sacrifices for several decades of life; many priorities are put on hold and at that age, it certainly feels like time is running out to achieve those goals. But a bit of patience may be warranted in rolling out the changes more gradually if at all possible. While it’s a big shift, when they leave for college, they are still about the same developmentally as before they left, give or take. Those responsibilities to them don’t evaporate, and we must keep that in mind.
It’s a fine line to walk between overbearing and absent as a parent; I don’t think it’s possible to strike that balance in all situations, thus we are doomed to fail at this at least once in a while. But finding small ways to indicate support, on their terms, without being overly aggressive about it is about the best way you can participate in your college student’s life after they depart the nest.