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How to Avoid Frustration, Anger and Resentment in a Crowded House

Tips for getting along with the college kid chased home by the coronavirus

spinner image Martie Bernicker Family
Sean Covey, second from right, who has written “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Teens,” sits with his family at their home in Utah.
Courtesy of Sean Covey

Just a few short weeks ago, college senior Jonah Bergman was about as far from home as he could imagine.

He was living his dream while studying plant science in the Netherlands. Home was a distant memory.

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Today, thanks to the coronavirus pandemic, the 22-year-old is uncomfortably replanted right back in his family's small Culver City, California, home — where both of his parents also are stuck working. Sure, stress and anxiety abound around the house during a time of close family proximity and social distancing.

But Jonah has a reason to be the unhappiest of all: His online classes are all on European time, meaning one starts at midnight while the other begins at 5 a.m.

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Jonah Bergman of Culver City, California, with his beagle, Bagel, had to return from study in the Netherlands because of the pandemic.
David Bergman

"He's pretty miserable,” says his empathetic father, David Bergman, a city planning consultant. “The secret is to realize that this is a really hard time for any college-age student. It's harder on them than it is on us."

Perhaps that is the single most pertinent piece advice for the millions of parents whose college-age kids were forced to return home to study in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.

"Not only have they lost the life they thought they'd built for themselves, but they are younger than us and don't have the emotional reserves to realize that things will be OK,” Bergman says.

Well-meaning parents should consider taking a dozen additional actions to avoid all the anger, frustration and resentment that can build up in any home where family has been suddenly forced to shelter with their college-age kids, according to interviews with five child psychologists and authors on college student success. Experts say taking these helpful actions with your college students now can result in weeks — if not months — of greatly improved coexistence:

• Acknowledge their grief. College students now are struggling in ways they've never struggled before, says B. Janet Hibbs of Philadelphia, coauthor of The Stressed Years of Their Lives: Helping Your Kid Survive During Their College Years. “Acknowledge their grief. Don't be dismissive,” she says. “This is a big deal."

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• Avoid asking questions. When your kids are away at college, they function perfectly well without answering a lot of questions from mom and dad. So don't fall into that trap now, says Karen Levin Coburn, a licensed psychologist, senior consultant at Washington University in St. Louis and author of Letting Go: A Parent's Guide to Understanding the Parent Years. “You have an adult living in your house who has been doing just fine without you, so focus on the things that matter,” she says.

• Include them in decisions. This is a situation where everyone is in the same canoe and has to paddle together, says Anthony Rostain, M.D., chairman of the psychiatry and behavioral health department at Cooper University Health Care in Camden, New Jersey. He coauthored the college survival book with Hibbs. “This is really about the family making decisions together in order to survive this,” he says.

• Treat them as equals. It's critical to view your college-age children as problem-solvers, not problems to be solved, says Martie Bernicker, executive director of SpeakUp! in Devon, Pennsylvania, in the Philadelphia area. The nonprofit promotes teen dialogue with adults. Two of her sons are now home from college during the pandemic.

She says one successful way for parents to accomplish cohesion is to ask your college kids specifically, “What are we doing that is driving you crazy?” Listen to what they say. Then stop doing it.

spinner image Sean Covey family
Martie Bernicker, third from left, of the nonprofit SpeakUp! in Devon, Pennsylvania, is at home with her family in the Philadelphia area during the coronavirus pandemic.
Courtesy of Martie Bernicker

• Shift the paradigm. Sean Covey's daughter, Victoria, is back home in Utah from her senior year at Southern Virginia University in Buena Vista, about 100 miles west of Richmond. So Covey, president of FranklinCovey Education, quickly decided he needed to “shift the paradigm,” lower expectations and focus on the positive.

"This may be the last, prolonged time that I have my daughter at home,” says Covey, author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Teens. “Even though we're all tossed out of our comfort zone, I want her to feel great about her experience here."

• Avoid saying mean things. Covey still regrets a recent morning when he argued with his daughter, who is a nutrition major, about some sugary cereal that Victoria's brother was eating. Covey thought that eating junk food was a bad habit, but his daughter thought that negatively commenting on the action would only steer her brother to more poor eating choices. Covey later apologized for what he said: “You don't want to leave your children with a negative taste in their mouths about being with you."

• Respect their schedules. Parents have to learn to let their college students sleep when they want and study when they want, Bergman says. In his small home, he takes all his morning calls outside so he doesn't wake up his son.

• Set expectations — from both sides. Parents also need to make clear that their expectations of their college kids back home are very different from expectations when the kids were in high school, Coburn says. At the same time, it's just as important to find out from your kids about their expectations of you. “It's like making an informal agreement between you,” she says.

• Show appreciation. Few things help college kids feel more responsible than the feeling that they've actually helped with something. So it's critical not only to give them responsibility but to show genuine appreciation for their help, Hibbs says.

• Learn from your kid. Instead of forcing some unwanted group activity on your kids, let the college students be your guide, particularly if they want to teach you how to play a video game or share some other new technology that they enjoy, Rostain says. “Learn to play it with them even if you're not good at it,” he says. “You won't regret it."

• Ask before offering advice. Instead of dishing out advice that no one requested, always ask before jumping in with it, Bernicker says. That can be done very simply by posing, “Is it helpful if I offer my perspective?” If they say yes, go for it. If they say no, well, bite your tongue.

• Accept them as they are. Your college student is an adult now, and you must treat the student as such, Bergman says. “You can't reimpose a family order you had before the student left for school."

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