They're off to college. The empty nest looms or maybe just the diminution of the number of children at home. Paterfamilias and I have been there, lived through that. Now it's one of our grown-up children whose oldest child has bounded off happily for college.
So maybe this is as good a time as ever to talk about a blog post Dr. Carl Pickhardt wrote for Psychology Today. It's not about children leaving the nest or parents having empty-nest longings. It's about a surprise call parents may get from their child while he or she is presumably taking notes in classes, trying out for various activities and figuring out how to fit in. Even if our kids go off to college happily, we parents may find all is not what it should be with the new experience. Pickhardt's post is about what to do if the child you've dropped off at college calls home weeks later and is in crisis.
Most young people making this transition into more independent living have at least a few times at the outset when they feel truly unprepared and overwhelmed.... Consider some hard adjustments of this challenging time.
Some of the adjustments Pickhardt ticks off are missing home and family; feeling lonely; disappointment at not coping well; concerns about living up to parental expectations; incompatibility with a roommate.
So how parents can parents handle the situation. Here's Pickhardt's five-step process should that "crisis call" come.
1. WELCOME the call. “We are so happy that you thought to call us; we love hearing from you, whatever you have to share.” Show that the loving family connection is unbroken.
2. EMPATHIZE with the upset: “Yes, if sounds like you are going through a really difficult time. Tell us more about it.” Provide emotional support.
3. OPERATIONALIZE the problem. “Can you tell us specifically what is happening and not happening that has contributed to your feeling this way?” Bring the problem into practical and objective focus.
4. STRATEGIZE about what to do. “What might be some constructive actions to take that would ease your current unhappiness, and would any outside help be useful at this time?” Explore problem solving possibilities.
5. ENERGIZE with faith in finding ways for moving forward. Declare: “We believe you have what it takes to meet this challenge and will come out stronger on the other side. Please keep calling us, and we’ll keep checking in if you like, so we can be with you as you work this through. " Provide confidence and optimism.
Depending on how fragile your child might seem, Pickhardt notes the possibility of seeking professional help from on-campus sources. But not too fast.
When a college crisis call does come in, it may help to remember that quote from John F. Kennedy: “When written in Chinese, the word crisis is composed of two characters – one represents danger, and the other represents opportunity.”
So, parents need to thread this needle: Take action if endangerment is communicated; but short of that, provide listening, empathy, and advice if asked, but do not intervene and interfere in this opportunity for the young person to grow.