Why Your Soon-to-be College Student is “Soiling the Nest”

And how to survive the experience.

By Anne Vaccaro Brady

IMG_3538Maybe this is the scenario in your house this summer: Your child heads to college in the fall. Your relationship was never perfect, what parent-teenager one is, but somehow your kid’s turned into someone you hardly recognize. Everything you say is wrong, the sight of you makes him turn in the opposite direction and/or he spends so little time at home you’ve started wondering if he left for college without telling you.

This behavior has been coined “soiling the nest.” And it’s perfectly normal. “A teenager’s job is to become independent,” explains Lisa C. Deluca, LCSW, a therapist in private practice who sends her second child off to college this fall and is experiencing the phenomenon again. “When it’s time to go, there can be very mixed feelings. They want to go, they don’t want to go, they love you, they hate you, they’ll miss you, they hate themselves for missing you, they hate themselves for being scared to go. It’s all very confusing.”

Knowing it’s normal doesn’t always help.“I did understand it was a natural thing,” Elizabeth Larsen acknowledged, discussing the summer before her oldest headed to college, in England from their home in Minnesota. “But I expected him to be nervous in a way that would’ve looked more like a kid who was anxious and nervous.”

Like many soon to be college kids, Larsen’s son didn’t want help from either of his parents about anything, including planning for his first semester, and even started pushing back on simple things like being reminded to walk the dog. “It was hard because I wanted to get along with him and I wanted to spend a lot of time with him and that was really going at cross-purposes with what he needed to do to take on this big challenge,” she said. “So it was an uncomfortable summer. There was a lot more tension in the air. We bickered more than we had.”

Parents need to address their own feelings. Sure, we all know our role is to raise our children so they can launch, but it doesn’t make this point in life any easier. The reality is that our role as a parent is often tied to our sense of value.

“Parents who are afraid of their child growing away from them or whose self-esteem is dependent on their childrearing role might feel crushed, wounded and unappreciated,” says DeLuca. “But it’s not about you. Manage this on your own time so you don’t feel flustered when they are being difficult.”

The other aspect is facing what this moment means for your family. “I was very aware that this was it for him living for a really serious period of time in our house,” said Larsen. “So that’s why I think it was painful for me. I had wanted to be able to get along a little bit better.” With her son going to college abroad, Larsen also knew that she wouldn’t see her son again until the end of his first semester.

There are ways to make this transition work better. You really do have to put your own feelings aside to make this time bearable. “The worst thing you could do is either run after and try to control the child more as they distance, or reactively distance from them, i.e. punish them with silent treatment or withdrawal from them,” says DeLuca.

For some families, the best tactic is facing the issue head on. Instead of getting caught up in what you appear to be fighting about, DeLuca suggests parents “call attention to the communication: ‘It seems we’re not getting along lately. I wonder if it has anything to do with you leaving soon.’ This way you make the unconscious conscious and invite conversation about the real issues.”

Larsen said that approach wouldn’t have worked with her son. “If I sat him down and said, ‘Hey, you know, it seems like you’re really nervous,’ that wouldn’t have gone well.”

DeLuca’s solution in this case is to joke about it. “If the child insults you, say, ‘Wow, thank God you are leaving so you won’t have to put up with my obnoxious behavior anymore.’ Or ‘Thanks honey, I will really miss you, too.’ Or ‘It sounds like you are really ready to go.’”

Larsen and DeLuca agree that the key is reminding yourself it’s not personal. As DeLuca points out, “It’s developmentally appropriate.” But you will need a thick skin. “Do not allow them to be abusive or disrespectful, but stand still and let them emote.”

Parents have to remember to be respectful, too. DeLuca suggests avoiding arguing in the first place. “If they are complaining, ask, ‘Well, what do you want to do?’ Or ‘What do you want us to do?’ It’s a lesson in their upcoming decision-making. Consider what they are saying and let them have it, if it’s fair. Stop thinking you all have to do things the way you always have. Things are changing.”

Avoid paying attention to parents who somehow aren’t experiencing this phenomenon. Though DeLuca says there isn’t a difference between how boys and girls get ready to launch, Larsen disagreed. “Some moms of daughters were like, ‘We’re just spending every last little moment together.’ Moms of sons, we were sort of over in a corner.” But she was able to laugh with her husband and her friends about their shared experience. “I didn’t handle it as well with my son directly,” she admitted.

“Smooth transitions are helped along by letting them know it’s good to go, you believe in them, you love them, you will be right here if they need you. That’s really the key message,” DeLuca adds.

Remember there’s an end in sight. Generally, this surliness doesn’t last once your child is on their way. “The moment they leave, if you already enjoyed a nice relationship with them, it will be back,” Larsen said. “They just need to get over that hurdle.”

Share your advice on dealing with a teen “soiling the nest” in the comments section below.

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