Dr. Wes: Last week we discussed the loud emotional thud many college students make in April and May when bombing out of college. Few families are prepared for this contingency, so today we’ll offer some dos and don’ts for families with a child who has just fallen off the righteous road of college matriculation.
• Do not fall prey to the myth that “when they quit, they never go back.” If this were ever true, it isn’t any more. Instead assume that everything works if you let it, including a meandering college career. Encourage kids to get their lives together rather than fret, nag or manipulate them.
• Encouragement and patience do not mean making life super-comfy for rudderless young adults. Expect them to work at least 30 hours a week and to pay something into household expenses. I strongly suggest charging rent and then putting that money aside to help them relaunch when that time inevitably comes.
Up to Date
To hear more about salvaging a young adult’s career path, check out the podcast of last week’s Up to Date with Steve Kraske at www.dr-wes.com.
• Request long-term goals. These can be general (e.g., return to post-secondary education, move into semi-independent living, etc.) and can look forward as much as two years in some cases.
• Set specific short-term benchmarks (e.g., explore alternative careers, consider other kinds of education, take junior college classes to maintain proficiency, etc.).
• Be clear that from high school graduation on, living at home is a privilege that comes with most of the same rules you’d have with any roommate like cleaning up your area or not eating someone else’s leftovers. A few, like dating practices, are unique to living with a parent. I don’t recommend the old “my house, my rules” proclamation. Your goal is to relaunch the young adult, not drive them out in an ugly spectacle. But all group living situations require guidelines and expectations.
• A young adult has to function. If he or she is lying around under-employed, smoking weed, eating your chips, having friends over for margaritas and playing video games all night, I don’t recommend continuing the arrangement very long. Folks who want to live a life of leisure should do so on their own dime.
I begin cases like this by defining the word “beneficence” — to give in a way that is genuinely helpful, rather than doing so because you feel sorry or guilty or obligated. Beneficence strikes the balance between being supportive and tolerant of a young adult’s difficulties and enabling him or her to fail once more. Give wisely.
Katie: Parents have one missile in their discipline arsenal that almost never misses, whether their children are 9 or 19. It’s simpler than a lost allowance or a confiscated cellphone. It’s issued without realizing that, years from now, kids will remember this intervention better than that horrible week they lost their social media privileges.
The nuclear bomb of parental consequence is found in this simple but often painful phrase: “I’m disappointed in you.” This sentiment may be well deserved, but only when the young adults aren’t already disappointed enough in themselves.
Returning to an old bedroom after an unsuccessful college experience, your child is already insecure about a changing life path. Focusing on “disappointments” or “failures” will only further damage his or her self-confidence, presenting unnecessary challenges to the familywide goal of setting them up for new successes. Even kids who eventually surpass their parents in height will always look up to them figuratively. Shattering a parent’s college and career dreams is depressing at best.
Try not to think of this situation as a car crash. Think of it instead as a road sign telling your child to turn and take a different exit. Focus on reparative rather than retributive action by helping find a Plan B that will keep your young adult motivated and busy pursuing new life goals.
A smile will not come naturally after signing checks for tens of thousands of dollars to an institution from which your child will never graduate. But lost time and money won’t rematerialize from a sense of frustration, which could in turn push some parents to discipline their adult children as though they’re still in high school.
Returning home doesn’t have to be a negative experience for families or young adults. With unconditional love and support, rebooting post-high-school plans can easily turn into a net positive.