"How do I parent my child from afar while they are in college and entering young adulthood?"
Your child has graduated high school. You took them to college, dropped them off. Some tears may have fallen. Your child's leaving home is a big step for both them and you. Now months have gone by. You miss them, but you know this is right—they need to leave home and venture out on their own. You look forward to reconnecting with your college-kid in-person soon. You connected over the holidays, but maybe it wasn't the warm connection you hoped to have. Instead wanting to spend time together, they had other things to do, even distancing from you. It’s painful. You feel the shift in your relationship—things are different with an emerging adult. You miss them and remember how it was between you. How do you navigate moving forward in your relationship that’s shifting like tectonic plates?
You may have noticed your grown-up child away at college isn’t as connected to you anymore. They don’t call as much. When they do see you, you aren’t spending as much time together as your parent-heart longs for. Things are shifting. You will always be their parent. They will always be your child. But how you relate to one another is no longer as it was, nor can it be. It can be a tricky balance to respect the space that they need as they emerge into adulthood while also maintaining a connection between you.
Though it’s painful and a difficult thing to experience your child distancing themselves from you, it’s important not to take it personally. It is less about how they feel about you and more about how they are growing within themselves. They need to feel themselves, step into their own identity separate and distinct from you, their parent. If they are at college, this is the first time they are on their own and wholly responsible for themselves—their waking, sleeping, eating, dressing, managing themselves—all without the presence of a parent. Your child has been on their own, living their independent life, they are not the same anxious child you moved into a dorm room just months ago. Your relationship as an authority figure over their everyday life has shifted. You have not been in-charge of the day to day events since they’ve left home, and the way you interact with each other may likely remind them of a former dynamic. Recognize that they are not likely trying to hurt you, they are simply trying to preserve their own sense of self as a burgeoning adult. Allow them move into further independence, while still letting them know you are there for them.
Give yourself permission to grieve the loss of your relationship as it was. Allowing ourselves to grieve what has been lost opens up space in us to be able to receive what is here now for us.
It is important to understand your role as a parent to your now-adult child. When they were young, when they needed you for their very survival, your role as a nurturing parent was akin to being a manager: you oversaw and managed their day-to-day activities, giving and revoking permission, providing what they needed from food to safety to love to allowance.
Now, since they’ve left home for college, work, or finding another path, your role has shifted from manager to consultant. They may ask your thoughts, opinions, and guidance, but any decision is theirs to make. You give advice, not direction. They may not yet be fully independent, earning and paying their way through life, but they need this time to learn to self-manage so they can succeed at true independence.
It’s also important to note that a consultant’s input is sought out, not necessarily given unsolicited. Your role no longer includes telling them what to do or granting them permission for daily tasks. Unless they ask for input, hesitate to offer suggestions. Navigating life without parental intervention is a major skill they are learning just now. For you too, it’s important to do the internal shifting you need to do to begin to relate to them as your adult child. That’s a difficult adjustment, but developmentally appropriate for them and you.
As a parent-consultant, own your role. You are a guide. You may no longer be the captain of the ship, but you can help them see the map. They will need help navigating the waters of this life and steering their own ship, and you are someone who loves them who has been sailing for longer than they have. They know this. They will come to you when they need you. Give it time.
They need to be their own person and make their own decisions, discovering life by their own understanding of what is good and what is not, and it’s important you allow them that time to grow. If you as a parent do not understand this shift in your dynamic with your emerging-adult child, you both will experience frustration and a fraying of your relationship instead of the possibility of moving forward together into a new phase of your relationship.
Remind your child you are here for them whenever and should they ever need you (and they will). It may seem like it’s going in one ear and out the other, but I promise, these things stick. They will remember it when they need it.
Keep inviting your child to every family thing. It hurts to have them say ‘No, I can’t make it’ as busy young adults do, but for them to know they are wanted and missed by mom and dad means a lot even if they can’t make it. And who knows, one day they may show up at that family dinner and surprise all of you.
Pray for your child. Pray for good presence in community to walk alongside of them as they journey wherever they are. Pray for them to feel and know God’s presence with them as they go about their lives.
It’s a beautiful gift to watch the little one you nurtured step into the world as an adult ready to give something back to it. Trust that you’ve done a good job. When you raise children in the way they should go, even when they’re old, they won’t turn from it (Proverbs 22:6). You’ve given them what they needed to be able to step into adulthood, and now you walk with them as a faithful guide, here to observe, here to help as they forge their own path. It’s different, now they’re away from home. But it’s going to be alright. You’re going to be alright. They will be alright.
Rev. Dr. Rob Toornstra
Rev. Deb Koster