Monday Musings…I’ll Be Home for Christmas

Exams are over! Finally…students can take a break and relax. For many, they look back on a stress-filled semester and wonder how on earth they got through. College and university can feel like a trial by fire – multiple assignments due at the same time; group projects with people who suck; three exams on the same day; a slacker roommate who is on the exact opposite sleep schedule, and the list goes on. But it’s over! 3 weeks to just chill…or is it?

On the bus, train, or car ride home there is often a common dread lingering in the head space of every student: “so, how are you doing in school?” It’s the question almost every parent asks within 5 minutes of greeting their child. Parents consider this to be an excellent way of reconnecting and communicating with their child. It shows they are interested, right? The delusion continues as parents believe that this question will jump-start a fantastic holiday of family togetherness and continued flowing conversation. Instead, the reality is often a fluffed response and, if travelling together, it’s likely followed by the young adult connecting their phone to the car and blasting some music (that a parent probably doesn’t like), or putting their ear buds in and tuning the parent out. If the child returns home on their own, after the expected greeting, they will make their way to their familiar and welcoming bedroom with fresh sheets and warm blankets, and a door that can shut out the world.

Parents are confused. Many don’t’ see this opening line as putting their child in the pressure cooker, but that is exactly what it is. Regardless of whether the child is doing well or not academically, it communicates one thing very clearly: my acceptance and approval is based on my performance. Every child fears that they can’t live up to the expectations of their parents. And add in the additional pressure if the parents are paying, and you have a recipe for mounting stress on top of the already mentioned assignments, projects, exams and roommate issues.

We live in a world of constant comparison. We continually measure ourselves with the accomplishments of those around us and what other people believe we are capable of. This is just as true of young people as it is for adultier adults. Somehow parents forget that. In the decade of decision beyond high school, students must find out who they are, what they are good at, where they can go to find that education or employment, and how to find a compatible and stable someone to share their hopes and dreams with … all the while wondering if their parents will approve. The looming cloud over their heads is: "what if I fail"?

So when the innocent question is asked about how school is going, the son or daughter perceives it as a judgement, plain and simple. And so the child has already planned a canned response that they think the parent wants to hear, meanwhile the truth eats away at them as guilt, shame, embarrassment, doubt and fear grows. It doesn’t matter if the student is actually failing or not. The internal belief is that: “my worth in this family is dependent on my grades. And I sure don’t want to disappoint my parents or seem stupid. I don’t want to be less than what my parents expect of me or what they have achieved, or what my siblings have been able to do.”

So the solution, parents, is not to have your child equate your love and approval of them based on whether they have straight A’s, but rather to show that you love them for who they are becoming. Acknowledge how hard it is to know who they are and what they are good at; that it's ok to try and not succeed. It’s not the end of the world if they hate their program or fail a course. There are other options. Transitioning from high school to life beyond is all a process of discovery and it is rarely smooth and it’s never easy. Children are looking for safety in the midst of real or perceived failure and doubt. So instead of asking the question about school, try simply asking: “How’s it going?” And if they say: “Meh”, then try, “Let’s listen to your iTunes playlist and get this trip on the road!” That openness without pressure may be the gateway to some awesome connection and honest conversation.

So, for the next three weeks when students need time to breathe before heading back, allow them to focus on just that – the time and space to regroup. Believe me, they are processing their future, they just need a safe place to do that. And that safe place should be home. After all, both parents and children, want to say this Christmas: “It’s so good to be home!”

This week's song is: I Hope You Dance by Lee Ann Womak. This is a parent's prayer that children take those chances,hang on to hope and faith, and when the tough times come, that they dance!!

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