FastWeb Column: Getting Along With Your Parents at College

This story was published in 2007 for FastWeb, an online education resource and scholarship search engine.

College is like a colander — it strains things. Mostly relationships. Mostly relationships with your parents. The way I see it, there are two types of parental predicaments. The first is when you fight over issues that hadn’t surfaced when everyone was living together during high school. The second is when kids begin to see their moms and dads as people instead of parents — faults, flaws and all.

Many students parent-proof their dorm rooms before a visit from the folks. They remove curse words, references to drugs or alcohol, and they Febreze the living daylights out of soft surfaces to remove the scent of the opposite sex. This struck me as a little paranoid when I first witnessed it, but I’ve seen this frantic overhauling so many times since that it’s about as surprising as watching a stoplight change colors.

Not only is this ritual strange, but it’s unproductive. If you and your parents disagree, tell them your thoughts and reasoning, then reaffirm your love for each other. Part of being a family is making each other feel loved, no matter what kinds of decisions anybody makes. It is unconditional love which allows growth and expansion, allows the creation of character. No matter the issue — politics, pre-marital sex, drinking, sexual orientation, study habits — it isn’t important enough for you to lose your family.

One way of dealing with this type of situation is to talk more often. Whenever I feel threatened or uncomfortable in a situation, I try to ignore it. This is not the right way to handle things. Not only has it caused unnecessarily long-term discomfort, but it often prompts the nickname “Sulky Seltzer.” I’d recommend that you make chatting with the ‘rents a pleasant experience. Furthermore, take it upon yourself to be responsible. If they call too much, tell them you’re busy and you’ll give them a ring tomorrow. Then do it. Believe it or not, there are things you have in common — the least of them being the houseplants and the most being you.

The second common problem I see between kids and their family stems from the shifting of power that often occurs during the college years. Teenagers are flung into this situation with radically different types of people — living together, eating together, getting the flu together — and we have to adjust quickly and figure out how to understand each other. All this analysis of character is bound to rub off. As you gain more independence and authority (even if it’s just legally, with your 18th and 21st birthdays), that means your parents have to relinquish their vice-like grip; when things are about even steven, you’ll start viewing your family objectively. My most important piece of advice is: have patience.

As you begin picking them apart, as you inevitably will, remember that a large part of you is them. Their habits and preferences shaped and guided your entire life. Even if you swear you’ll never be like your dad, it’s from him that you learned what you didn’t like. I got lucky; since I’ve gone away I’ve discovered that I like my mom and dad as people as well as bill-payers. (Phew.)

Think of how much is illuminated when you put a light source farther away from an object; you can see more. The same is true with people. Physical distance acts like a lamp and often sheds light on things you didn’t notice when you were close to the situation. College is that light — behave with patience and grace, and your relationship with your parents will be sunny, no clouds in the sky.

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