Wood's Homes Blog

Home is where the heart is: When leaving home is part of growing up (Part III)

August 30, 2018
By Dr. Angelique Jenney, Wood's Homes Research Chair in Children's Mental Health
Home is where the heart is: When leaving home is part of growing up (Part III)

This is the last post in this series about instilling a sense of home in children and youth, even when they are no longer living with us. Last month, we talked about temporary separations like summer camp. But as the long weekend approaches, many of us won’t just be preparing for our kids for back to school; rather, we’ll be preparing for them to move away from us for the first year (and, even if it’s the second and third year, there’s always a sense of an emptiness that is left behind). 

Not all kids will choose to go away after high school or choose a post-secondary educational experience that requires leaving home. But for those who do, there are definitely some issues that could be broached around the dinner table.  Some parents find it easier to avoid uncomfortable conversations with their kids and mask their discomfort by joking with their kids about going away to school (such as “don’t party too much!” or “try to make it to some classes!”) or by offering platitudes (such as “everything will be okay” or “just study hard and do your best”). 

For many parents, having meaningful and difficult discussions with their kids is a difficult task. Here are some tips for how to frame these conversations and successfully navigate this first (or second or third) separation:

Navigating the room/roomie: For kids on their way to a residence or new apartment, there may be things that are still very much unknown, such as “Where will I live? Who will my roommate be? What if I don’t like them? How will house rules get determined or navigated? What if my roommates party too much (or not enough)?”

The learning opportunity:  Make a list of these types of issues, go through them with your child, and let them try to solve the problem on their own.  Whatever you do, don’t get involved in their roommate drama by confronting their roommates or other parents – or buying bulk rolls of toilet paper at Costco for the whole house to avoid conflict.  These are important life experiences and your child needs to learn how to handle them. It’s part of adulting (yes, this is a real word now).

Managing money:  This is actually harder than it sounds, especially in first year where navigating the costs of residence and the varying meal plans can be a dizzying experience – and those are usually the straightforward ones.  Costs such as nights out in bars (yes, they will), movies or meals off campus with friends, and transit passes or Uber rides can be easily overlooked. You’ll want to negotiate all of this in advance (and not after your credit card bill arrives and you see all of the Uber splits).

The learning opportunity:  Build a budget in advance and lay out expectations.  If you don’t want to be seen as a ‘wallet’ (as one parent I know once put it), then you need to set the boundaries in advance. Everyone’s personal finances are different and the source of the money, whether it be parents, loans or bursaries, is not the point.  The point is to have a candid discussion about money, and to develop clear expectations with a system that gives the child both a sense of control and an opportunity to manage money. 

Planning to come home:  Make sure to set expectations for trips home. Is your child planning on coming home every weekend, bringing their dirty laundry and Tupperware? Or, if they live out of town, how are you going to determine a budget for the bus, train or flights? It’s also important to plan in advance – your child won’t be the only one trying to get home for Thanksgiving! You may miss each other a lot, but if flights are going to cost $500, you likely aren’t going to be seeing each other every weekend.

The learning opportunity:  Look ahead and determine the average cost of travel fares (especially in peak season), and let your child know what the budget is.  If they find a seat sale, book in advance or take an inconvenient departure time, allow them to pocket those savings. This teaches your child the inherent rewards for being thoughtful and frugal about money, as well as how to plan in advance – all very good life skills. 

Staying Safe: Most parents do a great job of making their children aware of the potentially terrible things that can happen at university, all while doling out plenty of advice about drinking, drugs and safe sex. Personally, I’m a huge fan of not only talking about consent, but also what to do if something bad were to happen (I recommend watching Netflix’s The Hunting Ground as a family). Also remember that your child is part of a larger student community and encourage them to become a part of a Bystander Intervention Program (you can learn more about them here).

The learning opportunity: This is a great opportunity to talk about ‘hard’ topics in advance and to remind your child that their family is there for them. It’s also a chance to talk about healthy relationships and falling in love (check out our earlier blog post about talking to your kids about love).

Having fun:  This often seems like a frivolous add on but, in fact, it is crucial to your child’s wellbeing at school. Make sure to stress the importance of having friends and people to talk to. One of the beautiful things about university is invariably your child will meet someone who shares similar interests (e.g. those who like to pay video games on the weekend instead of going to nightclubs).

The learning opportunity: I credit my older brother for giving me the best advice as I was embarking on my first year of university. He said, “Don’t let your classes interfere with your full university education, but don’t skip them – 90% of success is showing up. If it’s on the exam, it will likely be talked about in class and being present will give you a fighting chance.” University is an opportunity for your child to learn more about life than what their classes can teach them. Encourage your child to join a club or team, volunteer or get a part-time job where they can learn new skills and stay socially connected.

Making the grade: Despite the above advice, if your child does not manage their homework, they won’t be at school long enough to get that proverbial education. This is perhaps one of the most important conversations to have. In university, no one will be checking attendance or ensuring your child is completing their readings and assignments, and this autonomy can be very overwhelming for those who’ve always had a lot of parental structure in place.

The learning opportunity:  Ideally, this is about developing skills in priority setting, self-discipline and time-management. Because first year students do not have the experience to know when they can skip a class or not, recommend they make a commitment to attending every class in their first term. It can take a while to set up the patterns needed to succeed in this new environment and a bad mark can be discouraging.

Mind mental health: In addition to a new school, there will be a new room, roomie, friends, learning, food and more. This can get a little overwhelming, and naturally, your child will seek familiarity and comfort. But where does your child turn when nothing is familiar? It’s a good idea to talk to them in advance about how to deal with homesickness (e.g. calling a good friend).

The learning opportunity: This is a great opportunity to talk about mental health, and discover what programs and services are offered at your child’s new school. Too many university students needlessly suffer in solitude. Fortunately, many colleges and universities promote their mental health initiatives on their websites or orientation materials (e.g. the University of Waterloo’s mental health kits).

Give them space to grow: You want your child to know you’re there for them, but you also want to ensure you’re giving them room to ‘grow up” – and you can’t do that if you’re sending them weekly care packages or calling/texting them repeatedly throughout the day.

The learning opportunity: Talk to your child about what kinds of contact they are hoping for. For example, if you’re used to talking to each other every day, should that continue? Or is it time to start new traditions of connection? Your family rituals are your own, so negotiate in advance for how you will stay connected while also allowing space for independence and autonomy.

Set realistic expectations: What does it mean to be successful? Grades, lifelong friends, trying new thinks and growing as a person? Have a conversation with your child about the many different outcomes of an undergraduate degree – and how it doesn’t have to stop there.