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If you sent your teen off to college for the first time this fall, here’s something you should know: the child you sent away isn’t the same person who will come back at Thanksgiving.

This can be a shock. Come November, you will dust her room – which you’ve kept just the same as it ever was – imagining that she’ll return for the long weekend or maybe for even a longer break between terms and thinking that everything will be just the way it used to be. It won’t. She’ll be different. Things will have changed. And this is a good thing.

The first term on his own is a time of tremendous personal growth for your teen. He has had to manage his own affairs, make new friends, meet new demands, and handle new temptations and opportunities. He may have hit new lows in self-confidence or reveled in unexpected achievements, or experienced both, often in the same day. This is fine. This is what is needed. But your child, having to endure the total-immersion experience of being on his own in a strange environment, will grow up amazingly. The child you sent to school will come home an adult.

This is not to say that by November your child will have it all figured out. That’s unlikely. But having your child back for a visit will be like having your cousin or an old high school chum stay at your place while she’s in town on business.  You will be politely interested in what your child has to share, you will offer advice and support if they are asked for, but otherwise you will keep out of your child’s way. You will understand that what you’re seeing is your new, more grown-up son or daughter.

So here is the key piece: you must stay out of your child’s way starting right now. In order for your child to develop into an independent, responsible, well-adjusted adult, she needs to stand on her own two feet and this is the time when she’s got to do it. Yes, this is difficult for you. Yes, you want to know every detail of her college life. Yes, you’d like to live vicariously through your child.  Yes, you want to anticipate problems and head them off for her. But your child is not the star of some reality TV show and you are not the show’s director or part of the audience. You cannot grow her up yourself. She has to do that on her own.

College is a great tool for making this transition from childhood to adult. Colleges, generally speaking, accomplish this task well. Your job, between Labor Day and Thanksgiving, is to stay on the sidelines, cheering if cheers are wanted, sending cash occasionally, being politely interested but not over-involved.

If you let it, great things will happen. It will seem like magic.


© 2012, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved.