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How to Foster Independence When Your College Student Lives at Home

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Traditional college life typically includes dorms and dining halls, study groups, extracurriculars, and social life. But as the Covid-19 pandemic rages on, campus life looks different this year; for some, it’s not even happening on campus. Fears over localized outbreaks have forced several schools across the country to shut down and offer full-time classes online, which means many college students are bunking in at home with their parents this semester.  

Incoming freshmen are among those most impacted — many are experiencing college for the first time virtually, from their high school bedroom instead of a dorm room. Still other “first-years” are opting for community colleges or commuter schools, as living “chez mom and dad” can save them thousands of dollars on room and board. 

Whether your college freshman is living at home due to COVID-19 or by choice as a commuter student, navigating the transition from high school to college can be tricky for both you and your student. After all, you’ve technically got an adult living under your roof, but they may still rely on you to pay their bills and do their laundry. So how do you teach your newly minted college student some independence while maintaining your family’s sanity as you all adjust to this “new normal”? Here are some tips to help your child (and you!) survive the transition from high school to college, even if they haven’t physically left the nest.

‘As Long As You Live Under My Roof…’

Traditionally, freshman year is a time when young adults gain independence and start to spread their wings, and parents have to empty nest. It’s important to remind yourself, you’re the parent of a college student now. It can be easy to forget this when they’re still living at home. When college students live on campus, they generally enjoy more freedom than they do in high school and it can be easier to make new friends with classmates. While it may be hard to let go, as a parent, loosening the reins may be the best thing you can do to help your college student gain a sense of independence and control over their life.

Of course, living at home may go more smoothly for some students than others. Depending on your relationship, your child may actually enjoy having your emotional support, along with perks like home-cooked meals and not having to share a bathroom with dozens of strangers. There are benefits for you, too, including opportunities to share responsibilities, whether your child chips in financially or just helps out around the house.  

If your college student is living at home by choice, there’s likely to be less tension. But if they’re there out of necessity, say, due to the coronavirus or because it isn’t financially feasible right now for them to live on their own, it may create some friction. 

The best solution? Talk it out. Acknowledging grievances on both sides will help both you and your child to move past them and, with ongoing open and honest communication, deal with any future challenges that might come up.

Negotiating the ‘New Normal’ with Adult Children

It goes without saying, having a college student living at home is a huge adjustment for you both. As parents, you can help ease the transition in the following ways:

Discuss expectations

Don’t assume things will continue as they did when your child was in high school. Check-in with your college kids about their goals, and communicate your expectations. Make sure you both understand that you are entering a new chapter in your relationship, as well as your living situation.

In addition, the more you discuss before awkward or frustrating situations arise, the more smoothly they’ll go. Here are some questions to consider:

  • Is your student expected to help with household chores or get a job?
  • Do you expect them to have meals with you — or let you know when they won’t be joining you?
  • Will they help care for younger siblings or older family members?
  • Will they pay rent for living at home?
  • Will you be sharing the family car for any commutes?
  • Can they have overnight guests? 
  • What are the rules about having significant others in the house?

Provide personal space and privacy

It’s important for your child to have their own space while living at home during college. One, it gives them a quiet place to study — a vital part of the college experience, no matter where it happens. Absent a dorm room or the library, their childhood bedroom can provide a good environment for studious activities.

That said, it can be tough to feel grown-up in a bedroom that’s still sporting childish decor. Redecorating your college student’s room (or at least updating the posters!) may help reinforce the idea of a fresh start. Give them a chance to pick out some new items that reflect their unique personality. Bonus if their bedroom has a door you can close to hide unwieldy messes!

Let go of your role as caretaker

Let your child know they’re responsible for waking up on their own and getting to their classes on time. Don’t make appointments for them, and minimize the amount you do their laundry, dishes, or pay their bills (unless you’ve agreed to continue handling their financial responsibilities). Don’t nag them to study. Encourage them to be independent and take responsibility for their actions.

Remind them that even college dorms have rules

College residence halls have policies about smoking, drinking, quiet hours, curfew, guests, etc. If they lived on campus, your child would be held accountable for following these rules. Make sure your student understands that all adults living in the household need to feel comfortable. That may require some compromise on everyone’s part. 

Consider putting expectations in writing

Making sure everyone is aware of and comfortable with the “house rules” will help keep things peaceful and harmonious.

While this new phase of life can be challenging, it can also be a wonderful time. Both you and your college student will need to make adjustments as you transition into this new living arrangement, and there may be some additional negotiations as things change. But once you have figured out what works for everyone, you may be surprised at how much you enjoy having your college student at home.

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Disclaimer: This blog post provides personal finance educational information, and it is not intended to provide legal, financial, or tax advice.