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Home from college and bumping heads with parents? Here’s how you can get along

If you're a college student and have been home for weeks due to the pandemic, you might be wondering if you and your parents are even from the same planet.
If you're a college student and have been home for weeks due to the pandemic, you might be wondering if you and your parents are even from the same planet. (fizkes/iStock/Getty Images)

If you're a college student and have been home for weeks due to the pandemic, you might be wondering if you and your parents are even from the same planet.

You wouldn't be the only one. Some students have tweeted their frustrations over issues little and big, such as not seeing eye to eye on politics or feeling their depression and anxiety are worsening in the presence of their parents.

It's a complicated shift. College is a time for identity exploration, and students may have experienced a level of freedom and autonomy they've never had before, said Jacob Priest, a psychologist and assistant professor at the University of Iowa's College of Education.

That journey into adulthood may have excited students because it offered so many possibilities. When it's taken away, it can feel very disorienting, he added.

This loss can add another level of stress to moving back in with one's parents, resulting in constant arguments and disagreements. On the bright side, there are ways for young adults and their parents to get along that foster peace and respect at home.

Why you and your parents are clashing

Are your late night phone calls and your parents' early morning cheer brewing tension in the home? There can be several reasons for the conflict between you and your parents. Your parents may expect you to be who you were before you left the house, while you push back because you've had new experiences, freedom and flexibility, Priest said.

There's also the unavoidable stress of the pandemic that both you and your parents are likely feeling. The stress from work or the lack of it, worries over family and living through a devastating crisis are distressing. And many college students are pining for their friends and fretting over lost opportunities.

Or, maybe your parents are overwhelmed by your moving back into your childhood bedroom if it had become their home office. All of these situations can cause pressure that manifests as arguments, Priest said.

"That sense of loss can be really stressful because it's more of an ambiguous loss," Priest said. "It's not that they're losing something through death, [although] in some contexts that may be the case. But in this context, the loss is more existential, that these things I was looking forward to are not going to be there anymore.

"We don't have the rituals like we do with other losses to kind of mourn those things, to understand those things. So often that just becomes internalized and it can then lead to greater stress anxiety, which when we are carrying around that stress and anxiety, our interactions with people we are in close quarters with are likely to be more strange and more conflictual."

Ask for a family meeting

If students are clashing with parents over expectations and schedules, they can try requesting a family meeting, said Mary Alvord, a Maryland-based psychologist specializing in treatment of youths and coauthor of "Conquer Negative Thinking for Teens."

There, they can all discuss what each person needs and negotiate. Do your parents need quiet after midnight so they can sleep? Do you need allotted time where you can use a room for a little personal space for online classes or phone calls with friends?

"It's important for family discussion to happen and everybody respect each other's needs and wants," Alvord said.

In that discussion, students can show the autonomy, individuality and initiative that allows them to negotiate relationships in a healthy way, Priest said. And don't limit that discussion to just one meeting.

"A lot of times the assumption is that when we have one conversation, that's all we need to have about it," he said. "But just like the stay-at-home orders [when] businesses [were] closing on a week-to-week basis, it's important to engage in these conversations multiple times."

We're different people now than we were during the first few weeks of physical distancing, Priest continued. "Times have changed, we've gotten more information ... so when we're building relationships in times of stress, it's important to have multiple conversations."

Think twice about their intentions

When a dispute arises between young adults and parents, it can be easy to think parents just don't understand or care. Maybe parents think students are just being selfish.

In these situations, it's important for both students and parents to consider the intention versus the impact of someone's behavior or statements, Alvord said.

The intent is how a person was thinking and how they wanted it to come out. But the impact is how the other person perceived it.

When these moments happen, Alvord suggested, students can say to parents, "This is the way it came across. I'm wondering if this is the way you meant it?"

Doing so can help diffuse these quarrels by creating a pattern in which each party attempts to understand where the other is coming from before jumping to conclusions.

Know when to hold your tongue

When young adults go off to college, it's an opportunity to experience life through fresh eyes without the rules and influence of their parents. They have experiences that seismically shift their beliefs, personal philosophies and values. That often means disagreements with parents over political or social ideologies and religious beliefs.

Those disagreements manifest as arguments when they come home for the holidays or summer break, in an attempt to persuade their elders. But "now is not the time for that, because we have to coexist," Alvord said.

"So I say to college students, get your support and your validation from your friends at school."

Maybe some students have embraced a gender identity or sexual orientation that your college community affirmed, but their parents either weren't aware or didn't accept it. Before the pandemic, they might've been living on or off campus with a partner of the same, opposite or varying gender, Alvord said.

"Now you're at home, and the family might be more conservative, but some things they may not be ready to hear," she added. "Other things you may also all have to sort of agree to disagree, but respect each other's perspective."

If parents are trying to move into a place of acceptance, it's important "to give space to help parents catch up, given their lack of experience or knowledge surrounding issues of gender identity," said Priest, who also directs the University of Iowa's LGBTQ counseling clinic.

"They may not understand and they may not get it at first ... their first reaction won't likely be their last reaction," Priest said. "We've worked with parents who have come from a place of anger, frustration and loss and move toward acceptance. With knowledge, education and patience, parents can grow and understand.

"I don't think that it's on their young adult to educate them. But I think that if parents recognize their own lack of knowledge, lack of experience and really come from a place of wanting to understand and learn and grow, it's important for young adults to understand [to] provide that space for them."

Dealing with intolerance or abuse

Some parents may just shut down and not agree with whatever gender identity or sexual orientation their student has shared with them. It can be painful for someone to live in a place where their real identity isn't accepted by the ones they love.

Some university counseling centers are offering telehealth services students can seek refuge in, Priest said. If students are still enrolled, those services should be free and available.

However, "if you are in a toxic, hostile environment that is not accepting of who you are and you don't have any other option to be anywhere else, using those resources and talking with a counselor or a therapist to help you navigate that is going to be key," Priest said.

If young adults are in a space where they feel like their physical safety is threatened or that their mental health problems are going to be so bad that it could potentially lead to self-harm or thoughts of suicide, there may be other community resources that, in the short term, could provide space for them to go somewhere else.

Whether any youth centers are open and safe right now will depend on the state. But Priest suggests calling community resource centers or crisis hotlines, which may be able to link students with feasible temporary solutions.

Maintain connections with your college friends

One reason sheltering-in-place is hard is that everyone's living under one roof, so there's an intensity roiling all the time, Priest said. It's important to maintain multiple relationships to have them as an outlet.

"Oftentimes we have expectations that one relationship is going to be able to meet all of our needs. And that's never the case," Priest said. "In this context in which college students are moving back home, if they're [expecting] that those family members are going to be able to meet their needs, it could end up in disappointment."

Stay in touch with friends through social media, text messaging and video chats. It could help alleviate and navigate some of the pressure, Priest added, since friends are going through similar experiences.

Long-term relationship building

Attempting to be understanding, overcoming differences and putting in continual effort to resolve conflicts with parents can be hard at first. But it sets up both parties for a peaceful living situation during the pandemic, and it may benefit the relationship long-term.

“If parents and kids can kind of meet each other in this new space and get to know each other and have conversations that work around these new boundaries and these new expectations,” Priest said, “it’s going to be much healthier and potentially build a stronger connection for the long run as well.”