Staying Power: When Your Child Wants to Come Home From College

By Jennifer Van Luven, MSW, LCSW, CDM


As a mother of a college freshman, I have to admit that I may be more attune to the conversations of new college freshman being “unhappy” and deciding to leave college before it has really begun. Kids today find it very easy to call it quits and move back home and, alarmingly, many parents allow them. There may be several reasons as to why this happens. Do we live in a world where today’s youth need instant gratification? Is this generation just “entitled?” Have we given them the tools to fly the coupe? Or is it that we parents have enabled this batch of kids so much, that they lack the independence and skills to make it on their own?

 Dissatisfaction with the college experience at the end of the first semester is not uncommon. Several national studies suggest that one third of college students do not return for their sophomore year of college, though there is little data regarding how many of those students leave at the midpoint of their first year. However, both college personnel and first year students know that there are many students who will not be back for second semester.

 There are good days and bad days for everyone, of course. College students are no different. As parents, we hope that our college students will have more good days than bad. But sometimes, your college student may hit a string of bad days, or may seem particularly unhappy with their college experience. This is one of those times when, as parents, we may feel most helpless. In some ways, we are. Your student may lack the ability to work through the situation him or herself. To find ways to make lemonade out of their lemons.

 Many of today’s kids come from a house of entitlement and feel as if they need instant gratification. They move into a dorm room that is less than plush, it definitely does not resemble the comforts of home. They decorate to the nines and try to settle in to their new residence. As much as we try, it will never be home. Mom is not in the kitchen making their favorite meal, fresh towels are not in their community bathroom and they are living with a complete stranger. Our kids think that instantly they will be settled. It takes time, patients and a lot of social networking. This is something most didn’t have to do in high school. As parents, we need to allow them to be uncomfortable and to work through the process.

Kids today have a difficult time “fending for themselves.” This is due in part by our generation of parents who coddled and hovered during those teenaged years. Many of our kids did not learn the skills they need to be independent and spread their wings. Parents rushed to their child’s aid with teachers, coaches and homework assignments. Now, living away from home and not having that helicopter parent leaves our college students flailing in the wind. This contributes to the lonely and helpless feelings.

 Your child needs to have a sense of belonging on campus or the feeling of “fit.” Working or being off campus can impact that feeling. Many students who spend a significant numbers of hours off campus, either due to work or outside activities, (more than twenty hours per week) often feel less satisfied with their college experience because they are less connected.

 Social isolation also makes a big impact. Students who feel alone are obviously unhappier. Even on a very large campus, it is possible for your student to feel isolated from others. These students need to be encouraged to join activities. That may be an intramural sport, Greek life or campus government. In many cases, student dissatisfaction stems less from academic programs, residence hall conditions, or activities than from feelings of connection and fit. Encourage your child to do all that he or she can to find and connect with others.

 When considering a return home, perhaps one of the first and most important things that parents need to determine is how certain their student is about that decision. Is he absolutely firm that he will not return, or is he floating the idea to measure your reaction and perhaps seek your advice? Your task will is less to tell her what to do and more to help her explore her own feelings, abilities, and options. Whatever is decided in the end, your student must be comfortable with and committed to the decision.

Some things we can do as parents:

  •  Listen. Take time just to hear what your student has to say and reflect his or her thoughts back. They may just need you to be a sympathetic ear.
  • Help your child realize that they are not alone. Many students feel the same way at various points in their college career. Although he or she may still be unhappy at the moment, understanding that this is a normal phase may help to put things in perspective.
  • Help them determine the validity of their complaints. Are their expectations realistic? Is their problem chronic or a one-time issue?
  • Insist on honesty. Insist that your student be honest both with you and with him or herself. Don’t let them make excuses. Don’t let them gloss over real issues. Help them take a full and honest look at the situation and their place in it.
  • Encourage time and patience. Sometimes issues or situations may need time to run their course. If your student is unhappy at the midpoint of a first semester and talks about transferring or dropping out, try to insist that they finish the year. A second semester is often very different. Giving the experience a chance may be all that is needed. Countless students talk about transfer during that first semester and wouldn’t consider leaving their school by the end of the year.
  • Help your student reflect on their attitude and actions. What are they doing to correct or improve the situation? Have they made an effort to connect or talk to someone on campus or change their approach? Help them think about whether they are working to improve the situation.
  • Consider a strategy or action plan. Rather than just waiting it out, or continuing to be miserable, help your student create a plan of attack. Taking action, even in small ways, helps your student feel empowered and in control.
  • If your student is considering a transfer, help them consider whether they will be taking their problems with them. Are the issues truly with the school or with themselves? What would be different somewhere else?
  • Help your student think about the satisfied and happy students on campus. What is it about those happier students that make them happy? What are they doing differently? They are at the same institution and are having a better experience. Why? Are there behaviors that your student might adopt?
  • Don’t set your student up with unrealistic expectations. Many of us, as college parents, may be guilty of telling our students that, “These are the best years of your life!” They may not be. Help your student realize that there will be some wonderful experiences, but there will also be some lows. College is about hard work, meeting new people (some of whom your student may not like), navigating a new world, and learning independence and responsibility. These factors can make demands on students that may, at times, seem overwhelming.
  • Lastly, consider whether this college or university was truly your child’s choice or your own. Many of today’s parents press their children into making the college choice that most appeals to the parent, rather than that which feels right to the child. The same can be said for college majors, dormitories, and even first-semester courses. If your son or daughter never wanted to attend this institution, their unhappiness there may be a sign that they need to make the choice that is right for them.

 The college experience is a roller coaster for most students. The good times are particularly exhilarating and the lows are particularly deep. The student who is prepared for the emotional changes will better weather those changes. Although, as a parent, you cannot change the experiences, you can help your student learn from, value, and grow through the experiences.

Creating the New Normal: Navigating the Holiday Season in Separate Houses

By Jennifer Webbe VanLuven, MSW, LCSW, CDM


Adults and stress go hand in hand during the holiday season. There is so much to do. Family to be seen, school holiday programs, gifts to be bought and wrapped, and special celebrations such as Kwanzaa, Chanukah, Christmas, and New Year. When parenting from two households, the stress can feel insurmountable.
You may also discover this time of year stirs up a lot of different feelings for your children. If this is their first holiday season following your separation or divorce, keep in mind the change in the family may hit them very hard. While you can’t take away the pain your children feel, how you spend the first holiday after a separation or divorce can really impact children’s perception about family change.
Too often, parents get caught up in issues like who is buying what or dividing up the holidays. One of the best things you can do for your kids is use this time to rebuild a sense of family. Create new traditions and events in each household. Kids need to know that life will go on and they’re going to be okay. While your child’s perceived loss of ‘family’ may hit them very hard during this time of year, there are ways you can help your children manage the experience in a healthy way.
Keep your emotions in place. Children take emotional cues from their parents. The holidays will be hard on parents, but they need to realize that it is doubled for the children. If you as parents need a little extra emotional support, don’t be afraid to call in the troops and take time to care for your emotions.
Silence isn’t always the best way to go. Be sure to talk to your children about the new plans for the holidays. Kids like to know what is going to happen and prepare their own minds and feelings. Talk to them about what will be different and what will stay the same. Avoiding this conversation, keeps kids on edge and guessing what the holiday will look like.
Focus on creating meaning. Focus on cutting back and on the true meaning of the holiday. Find an activity that will promote a deeper meaning for the holiday. Adopt a family or volunteer at a shelter. This will make new memories and place the focus on something other than old traditions.
Let your stress guide you. Newly separated parents often ask if they should spend the holiday together. This is a good idea in theory but eventually, parents move into new relationships and the “new normal” is only delayed. This can cause even more stress on parents and children are quick to pick up these cues. Start your new tradition as soon as possible and reduce the parental conflict from the beginning.
Different isn’t devastating. As parents, we need to ask ourselves which traditions are worth hanging on to and which can be replaced. We don’t have to recreate the whole holiday. Maybe think of one new thing that you can do as a family.
Make gift-giving painless for the kids. Children love to participate and give gifts. No matter how you feel about your ex, do not allow your child to arrive empty-handed. It is not about “you” giving a gift, it’s about your children giving a gift. Not only is this a reminder about the joy of giving, it strengthens a child’s sense of security.
Do not give gifts with strings. Do your best to coordinate gift-giving with the child’s other parent. If that is not possible, think before you buy. If you are hesitant about the child taking this gift to the other parent’s home, then don’t buy it. If a child cannot decide where the gift will go, then it’s not really a gift.
Creating the new normal is difficult. The difficulty is not only for the children but for parents as well. This list is not complete, there are many other ways to create happy holidays for your children and yourself. Take time to do a frequent status check with yourself. Knowing where your emotions lie is imperative in keeping children feeling safe and happy.

The Business of Play: Youth Sports in America

By Tony Tramelli, LPC
The culture of youth sports in America has changed dramatically over the past decade. Not too long ago youth sports were for the most part community-based organizations which did their best to give every child the opportunity to be part of a team, to get some much-needed physical activity, and to learn the many valuable skills that come with competition. In the past ten years or so we have seen youth sports move away from this model and develop into a $17 billion industry, which makes it larger than the business of professional baseball and the same size as the NFL.
This financial boom has occurred not with the increase in participation but with a significant decrease in children’s participation in sports. Going back to 2008, regular participation in youth sports is down in almost every category. One would think that the decline in youth sports is a result of the sedentary, technology-dominated lives of young people. Children are certainly prioritizing screens overplay, but this is not the primary driver for the decrease in participation. To explain this phenomenon, we have to look at income inequality.
Among wealthier families, youth participation is rising, and among the poorest households, it is trending significantly downward. According to a report from TD Ameritrade most American families whose children are involved in sports spend about $500 a month for each child to play, about twenty percent spend $1000, and roughly ten percent spend upwards of $2000 a month. These costs have made it impossible for thousands of children to participate in sports. There are also many cases in which families, who are struggling financially, to go into debt or make other financial sacrifices with the dream of their investment paying off down the road in the form of college scholarships or even professional careers. The fact is however that youth sports are a seriously flawed investment. Only two percent of high school athletes are awarded financial scholarships and only two percent of college athletes go on to professional careers.
Even with these dire statistics, we have seen an explosion in the pay-to-play travel team model of youth sports. Expensive travel leagues take talented young athletes from well-off families, leaving behind local leagues with fewer players, fewer involved parents, and fewer resources. When kids move from community teams to elite travel teams, it sends the message to the kids that didn’t make the team or whose family couldn’t afford it, that they don’t have a place in sports. The American system of youth sports, serving only a select few, at the expense of so many, has destroyed an institution that once prided itself on the values of participation, teamwork, character development, and physical exercise. Youth sports has become, like so many institutions in this country, a business.
The lack of access to youth sports for so many kids is only one of many consequences of this culture around sports. We also must look at how this culture is affecting the athletes and families who do have the opportunity to be part of these teams. Because parents are investing so much financially with the rare chance of a future payout, naturally more pressure is put on the athlete to perform. Kids are experiencing a tremendous amount of pressure and expectations from parents, coaches, and peers alike. At the heart of this pressure is a fear of failure; if they don’t perform well, they fear that something bad will happen to them (even if this is objectively untrue).
Based on the research of thousands of young athletes participating in elite sports the most common causes of fear include;
– Disappointing their parents
– Being rejected by peers
– The end of their sports dreams
– That it will all have been a waste of time
– Failure in sports means the child is a failure
These beliefs produce;
– Negativity, worry, doubt
– Fear, anxiety, stress
– Muscle tension, increased heart rate, adrenaline pumps
– Self-sabotage and avoidance behaviors
These beliefs and fears are why so many children are dropping out of sports by their early teens. About seventy percent of kids are giving up organized sports by the time they reach high school.
Kids are also experiencing pressure to play a certain sport and even a certain position within the sport based on the probability that it will land them a college scholarship. More and more kids are becoming single-sport athletes, playing their select sport all year round, which leads to physical deterioration and burnout. The irony in this is that most college recruiters are looking for athletes who play multiple sports throughout the year. Some kids are even being told to ignore defense in favor of scoring because it is easier to get recognized that way.
With all of this pressure being put on these children, one would think that success at a young age is a valid predictor of future success, but this simply is not the case. Unless a child is one of the rarest prodigies in their sport, results at a young age do not predict later success. What matters in youth sports in regard to future success in sports are not the results, but rather the passion and willingness to work hard to improve one’s skills, developing the resiliency necessary to manage loss and failure, and to develop physically and technically.
We also see family systems affected due to the current culture of youth sports. For many families, life revolves around the team; practices, games, private coaching, out-of-town tournaments, fundraisers, etc. The extent to which and how families are affected by this of course depends on the family, but for many, no time is left for anything but the sport. This leaves families without opportunities for family dinners, vacations, downtime, and social lives outside of the team. We also know of many families in which resources or talent allows only for specific children to participate in sports. This leaves the other child or children to feel left out and less than.
Youth sports could and should be a powerful and healthy developmental opportunity for children. In a healthy sports culture, children develop resiliency, commitment, teamwork, sportsmanship, and have an opportunity to get some much-needed physical activity. We, as parents of young athletes, need to do a better job of encouraging this type of culture. We do this by changing our family’s culture around sports. We do it by reminding ourselves why we have our kids in sports in the first place and by removing our focus from the results and putting it on the effort that our kids display. We do it by making sure that all children have the opportunity to participate no matter what their skill level or family’s financial situation may be.

Back To School: Acknowledging and Understanding School Stress

By Katelyn Siebert, MSW, LCSW
“Back to School”… three words that typically hold some level of both excitement and worry for children and parents alike. Parents are excited for some return to “normalcy” while also feeling worried about all the new hurdles the school year could hold for their family. Children on the other hand are usually excited to see friends but also aware that going back to school might mean more stress or anxiety in their life. It’s safe to say that school stress is a very real thing for both children and their adult caregivers.
So, what do we do with these mixed emotions about going back to school? Specifically, the feelings that are causing us some level of emotional discomfort. The answer here is to first acknowledge it. Acknowledging these feelings allows us to start to process them. For adults, we may be able to acknowledge these emotions on our own but for some children, guidance may be needed in starting this conversation and self-reflection. As the adult, it is encouraged to provide a safe emotional space for your child to discuss how they are feeling about going back to school. A safe emotional space is created by using active listening and non-critical conversation. It is also important to recognize the importance of not trying to “fix it” but more so being present with the child as they acknowledge these feelings that exist. Practice sitting in the uncomfortableness of these feelings together. Acknowledge the feelings then move forward to processing.
When we think about processing our back-to-school emotions, specifically the negative ones, we can benefit from writing them down. After writing down our worries or concerns we can prioritize them to determine which worries hold the most weight for us or are causing the largest amount of stress. We then tackle those “big worries” first. Many times, children’s worries are about the unknown or based on past school experiences. With some problem-solving skills, together, you can support your child in answering questions or figuring out who they can go to if they need more clarification about something. Some questions may not have quick or easy answers. If that is the case, it’s important to consider what strategies could be used to reduce anxiety when there is a lingering “unknown”. Many times, when there are too many “unknowns” for children they begin to show signs of needing more control through undesired behaviors. Answering questions and providing a space to figure out as many stressors as possible can reduce some of that back-to-school anxiety as well as a potential increased need for control.
It’s important for parents and caregivers to remember that children’s brains are still learning how to navigate difficult or confusing transitions. They need frequent guidance and support in learning how to handle difficult emotions and situations in a healthy way. School can be looked at as a child’s full-time job. They are there 7-8 hours a day Monday through Friday. They have expectations they are expected to meet and are evaluated daily on their performance and increase in skill. They may encounter peer struggles and have difficult or confusing interactions with their teachers. For most adults, the demand of their job is at times stressful so it’s only natural that children would feel this way too about their “job”. Considering this perspective allows us, adults, to have ongoing empathy for a child and their return to school. It helps parents and teachers understand how children may be viewing school and the stress related to it.
With this said, it is also important that parents and educators are taking appropriate measures to handle their own back-to-school stress. Believe it or not, using the same strategies as noted above for supporting children, will also help you. Acknowledge the emotion and allow yourself space to process it with a friend, spouse, family member, or therapist. Then begin to problem solve to the best of your ability. Recognize what you DO have control of and what may take some time to figure out. For example, one thing parents do have control over is how they discuss their own back-to-school stress in front of children. It’s important to be mindful of the way adults talk about school as it can set the tone for a child’s opinion of it too.
By acknowledging and processing back-to-school feelings, you are allowing yourself and your child the opportunity to understand both the thoughts and the feelings that are currently present. When we can better understand our thoughts and feelings, we are more in tune with what supports or strategies we may need to utilize to get us through the situation at hand. School is undoubtedly both a source of happiness and stress for children and parents. By working together, the upcoming school year can be approached with courage, optimism, and excitement for all of the good things this year could bring.