Lost in Transition

Students who started third level education this autumn are also facing the major challenge of having left home, a prospect that some students would have looked forward to and others would have viewed with fear and trepidation.  Preparing young people to manage their own welfare is a key parenting responsibility. Sons and daughters who have had the fortune to have been given the opportunities to develop self-reliance from their toddler years can really enjoy the adventure of leaving the nest and taking responsibility for themselves.  However, because many adults themselves find it a highly uncomfortable challenge to become self-reliant and to let go of the leaning on others, they are not in a solid place to encourage and support self-reliance in their children.

When parents do ‘too much for children’ or ‘make children do what they the parents want them to do’ or ‘are not in a place to guide children in learning to rely on themselves’, then young people will find living out from home very challenging.  Those who have had everything done for them will encounter a sense of helplessness and will be considerably unsettled and return home every weekend; some may find the transition too frightening and drop out of college and return home.

For those young people who were dominated and deprived of the opportunities to develop their own initiative, make their own decision and do things their own individual way, most will probably continue to live out their parents’ projections or, when out of sight of their parents, may rebel, do little or no study and over-indulge in the social side of college life.  Whatever they do, these young people will struggle to find their identity and independence – whether they conform or rebel – and it may take a series of crises to wake them up to the challenge to live their own lives and, in the kindest and firmest way possible, cut the umbilical cord to their family of origin.  Incidentally, such an eventuality ensures that their relationship with their parents moves from a parent-child to an adult-adult relationship.

Some parents worry that their sons and daughters who are living out from home may be ‘partying all of the time.’  This is not as common as some parents believe, but when it is a reality, then the young persons concerned are clearly not pursuing studies with interest and passion.  They may not be revealing their true educational and career ambitions for fear of disappointing or upsetting parents or for fear of parental out-rage.  Incidentally, third-level education is not just about academic and career development; it is also about emotional and social development which manifests itself in the need to belong to the college community of students.  For this reason, some partying is essential and there is the added factor that emotional and social competence and confidence enhance academic and career achievements.

For those young third-level beginners who continue to stay at home, there is the possibility that the child-parent relationship with their parents will be maintained and the graduation to an adult-adult relationship will not emerge.  It is not essential that young people leave the nest in order to find independence and adulthood; after all there are many married adults who have their own homes who remain enmeshed with their parents.  It is the nature of the relationship that determines whether or not young people learn to stand on their own two feet and not continue to rely on their parents.  It certainly is the case that some parents foster reliance on them rather than self-reliance.  Staying at home under such circumstances may become claustrophobic and, definitely, restricting for the young adults.  Of course, because self-reliance was not fostered from a young age, it is often the case that some young people are not even remotely ready to leave home.  When this is the case, serious examination of the parent-offspring relationship is urgently needed.

The reality is that most young people come to third level colleges with a confused sense of identity and it is to their credit that, in spite of this considerable emotional disadvantage, that some eighty per cent of students get through first year.  This eighty per cent includes a good percentage re-sitting and passing first year examinations.  However, there are twenty per cent of first year students who drop out.  These students need patient support to examine what has happened for them.  Indeed, it is that deeper examination of their own self-esteem, their parents’ relationship with them and their relationship with their peers that is far more important than the first university examination.  Psycho-social readiness for third-level college is not even remotely given adequate consideration, and its absence does lead to a considerable wastage of educational resources.  What is even more important is the extent of suffering that these young people can endure, most of it going undetected.  A 2006 survey showed that eighteen per cent of college students experience serious depression and that most of them don’t talk about it to anyone or believe that even if they did, nobody would understand!

Dr. Tony Humphreys is a clinical psychologist and author of Leaving The Nest.