Phoning Home: Parenting Your College Student When the Glitter Wears Off
Last week I finally got “the text” from my college freshmen son.
It had been three weeks since college drop-off day, and I’d worked really hard not to pester him too much with my needy texts, phone calls, and questions. Every so often I’d text him a quick “love & miss you,” along with a pertinent question I’d been dying to know, like if he’s happy, if he’s making friends, if he’s liking class, etc.
Consistently, his responses back to my texts have been super short: “It’s great!!” “Yes!!” “Love you too!!”
I’ve only talked to him on a handful of occasions. Every time I call he seems to be hurrying to class or hanging out with friends.
As a mom who struggles with the process of letting go, being so disconnected from his new life has been tough. He’s always been an independent kid, but my only assurances that he was doing OK were a plethora of exclamation points in his brief but upbeat text responses.
Until I got a text from him that began with “UGH.”
The full text was practically a novel--a venting of frustration about how hard his calculus class was, how he’d never struggled with math until now, how he was worried a bad grade would make him lose his scholarship, how his demanding class schedule conflicted with club baseball practice and he realized he couldn’t do both, and how stressed and confused he was about what he really wanted to do for a career.
It ended with, “I think I want to change my major. Please don’t be mad. Can we talk?”
And in that moment this mama felt the heavens part with rays of light and an angels' chorus singing “Hallelujah!”
My role as his mother—as a sounding board, adviser, and encourage--was not over. He was reaching out for wisdom and guidance because he was finally ready for it.
And I was ready for it too.
Everyone knows honeymoons don't last forever
I'm not a stranger to receiving this kind of text at approximately the 3-4 week mark of freshmen or sophomore year of college. My daughter, now a college senior, had also reached out around this time as the glitter of her freshmen year wore off, revealing the big reality of classes, pressure, and uncertainty underneath.
And just in the last week four of my friends who have kids in college mentioned getting a similar phone call recently. Homesickness. Frustration. Roommate tension. Uncertainties about the direction of their major. Lack of money.
Tis’ the season of reality—of our college-age kids discovering that the freedom that comes from independence also comes with the gravity of responsibility. Our once confident kids who breezed through high school with the attitude of “I can be anything when I grow up” now realize that choosing a career path is not like picking out a Halloween costume. College isn't like summer camp. This thing called "adulting" is so much more than an age on a driver's license.
For my son, his sudden epiphany that he wanted to be a policeman instead of a doctor meant navigating the university’s complicated system of changing his major from health sciences/pre-med to sociology/criminology. He had to get a new academic adviser. Some of his hardest first semester classes were now empty credit hours. It was too late to switch classes, so he’d have to catch up with his new plan next semester. He might have to take summer classes. Or maybe not even be able to get his degree in four years.
As he poured out all of these details with me on the phone, I listened. Occasionally I asked a few questions to explore what was underneath the surface, but mostly I just listened. And the more I listened, the more he talked. And vented. And shared.
Finally he got exasperated and said, “MOM! What do you think I should do? TELL ME WHAT YOU THINK I SHOULD DO!”
“I think you should slow down, take a deep breath, and keep exploring the answer, buddy.”
Boom. Motherhood clearly isn’t over, but the heart-wrenching process of letting go and accepting the change in his life is also changing me. I’ve been grieving the loss of my old role as the mother of a boy, and in the process I’m beginning to embrace my new role as the mother of a young man.
This is a new season of parenthood when my most important contribution doesn't mean having the right answers. My job description as a mom no longer consists of directing, correcting, and protecting. It has evolved into coaching and encouraging him along the path of exploring, evaluating, and making decisions that he can own himself.
And the person I need to keep pointing him to as he faces these big life choices is not me, it’s God. That is the greatest contribution that I can give him as his mother.
As much as I wanted to insert a directive opinion and calm his frantic rant with helpful solutions, I simply encouraged him to be open. I reminded him that God created him for a purpose, and has a plan for him, and he should seek God’s peace and guidance in prayer and a lot of listening. I reminded him that he's only 18-years-old, and his path to his future career will probably have several hairpin turns along the way. I reminded him that he's not alone, that God was with him every step. And I reminded him that I loved him no matter what, and would support any decision he made as long as he felt it was God’s direction.
Parenting young adult kids brings a truth into light that I can see more clearly now: Parenthood is a life-long collaboration with God. He's always been alongside us, but when our kids are small and needy it sometimes feels like we're the only people in the game. Now that my son has left home, I realize that God's role in his life will become more apparent as my role naturally steps back.
Since our conversation, my texts to my son have changed in tone to reflect a shift that’s happened in my heart. Although I still miss him, I’m no longer reaching out as the desperately sad mom who's worried about intruding on his new independence but dying to know the mundane details of his life.
I now text him whenever I feel the urge, offering a short Bible verse or simple reminder that I’m praying for him, that I believe in him, and that I love him. I am his advocate, listener, and encourager.
I’ve got a new mom-skin on that I’m wearing with confidence.
I’ve realized my son still values and trusts my role as his mother. I know he loves me, and that he knows I love him. I know he’s doing OK but also facing the normal challenges and realities of college. I know he'll feel the weight of some burdens, but instead of over-worrying or taking them on for him, I'll point him to the One who's asked to carry them.
And I know he’ll reach out if he needs me, and I'll always be there. But I’m comfortable inviting God to be his go-to person. I’ve reclaimed an appropriate place in his life, and it finally feels right.
And I’ve learned that for both my son and me, surviving and thriving in this season of “letting go” simply means “letting God.”
Written by Kami Gilmour, mom of 5 teen and young adult kids. (releasing her grip on her son at college drop-off day in the photo.) Kami is the author of a best selling devotional book for parents of college students (Release My Grip).
It’s like you’ve been living my life! I’ve been so desperate to hear from my son even though I know he’s loving his new independence. We’ve come to an agreement that he will text me twice a week for now until this desperation ceases. No text novels. Just a simple “Hi” or “I’m still alive” or “Good night” will satisfy the agreement. It’s working. Sometimes I even get a “Thanks, Mom”. Those are the best!
It’s getting easier as we both transition into new seasons of our lives, but I can’t wait til he’s home for Thanksgiving.
Thanks for this.
I agree! It is exactly like she is living in my life! The shift of parenting is so difficult and I so desperately miss my son. I know that this next phase he is exactly where God wants him to be but I am wanting him to open up to me and let me know that he is doing ok! He is also not putting Christ as a priority and that is killing me! I love these blogs! Thank you for sharing your life!
Wow, So I didn’t know I would be “fed” like this by simply sending the gift box to my child. Thank you for this post/devotion!!! I’m a little strange in that I didn’t walk away with tears or find it hard to say goodbye when we dropped off my daughter off at college. That was my husband but not me. 🙂 My “fear” has been for my child NOT to be stressed while away and I prayed for that constantly. The scenario you described at week 3-4 of college is what we have lived all throughout high school so I knew college would be a challenge. So I got the “text” at week1, week2, week3 and by week 4 it was quite long and came late at night and I could tell she was on the verge of panic and true anxiety. I asked her to call me and let her talk and then I prayed with her. She has a relationship with Jesus so I just pointed her back as you article stated but I realized that I TOO needed to be pointed back! Just like she needs Him, I need to release my daughter to Him as well and I’ve been watching God show me that as each week passes. He reminded me that my faith must be in the fact that He holds her, even when the plans of life and college don’t look like we had planned. The ups and downs and challenges are part of HER testimony and God will be glorified in it. So we BOTH are growing in our relationship with God during this time. Lord help us to both rest in you. Amen.
Thank you! As a mother of 4 teens (one in college and one in the midst of the college application process), this was a great reminder that we are not in this journey alone as parents or as students. That God is with us every step of the way. As our roles shift along the path, he will always be with us.
Loved, loved this……This “my oldest/only daughter is a freshman away at college and I’m struggling” Mom needed it – a lot.
Well…. this sounded like my week with my freshman son!
Thanks for sharing!
Thank you for this article! So timely & encouraging in my life!
I have the opposite problem! My daughter is leaving for college in 2 weeks. She cries everyday because she’s afraid that something will happen to me and she won’t see me all the time! She’s going to NYC to study music theater! I’m about exhausted of what to tell her. Satan is beating her up even tho God has opened the door so wide for her!!! She keeps wondering if she doing the right thing! Any advice for a mom who is just as scared but doesn’t show it!!
HI Charlene, when we went through this with my daughter before she left, I got a huge poster board and drew a line down the middle. On one side I wrote”lies” and on the other “truth. I had my daughter list all the things she feared like “what if I chose the wrong school” on the lies section then on the truth section I would provide a truth like jerimiah 29:11. We did this until we ran out of poster boars space then I tool a photo. I told her the enemy comes to steal but jesus came to bring life and do we can stand on truth. I recently had to text that photo to her and to be honest the board encouraged me too. I pray this helps.
Oh my goodness. It is as though God’s hand was in this. I just read this with tears flowing as my daughter is a sophomore and I am STILL struggling with letting go. I had no sooner resolved myself to point her to God, and to put her needs before mine (as per your other post) when a text popped up on my screen. She was distraught for having allowed herself to cry herself to sleep over one issue and and then sleeping through class where she was called on for the first time about a topic for which she was completely prepared. It was as though God gave me a chance to practice my new resolve and put before me an opportunity to point her to Him rather than to take on her burdens. Thank you for your blog; I feel so blessed to have found this guidance.
Yikes. My comment went to moderation…. I made an error toward the bottom “new resolve and put HER before me AND AN opportunity… SORRY!
I discovered that sophomore year was pretty hard for my kids. Things got a bit more “real.” Thank you for reaching out and sharing your experience, it helps to know that there is a tribe of us working on letting go and letting God!
Oh my gosh if this didn’t hit the nail on the head. The phone calls I make to my son, the texts, the worries about EVERYTHING. He’s having trouble with calculus. All his life he has wanted to be a doctor and for the first time ever he’s doubting himself. He was always a straight A student but of course, not in college. He’s not doing badly (except calculus!). i worry if he’s truly made any friends. I hate it when he spends time alone, especially on weekends. I think he’s being too shy and not putting himself out there to make new friends. But hey, I could be wrong and he just doesn’t want to keep talking about it. Thank you for this article – so so perfect.
How timely it was to find this blog! I just had this type of conversation with my freshman daughter! She isn’t homesick but is struggling a bit and wanting to come home because she is a true introvert and after the long, busy school week, she needs some alone time to regroup and recharge! She is finding that hard to find at her large university! She also is really having a problem with the party atmosphere which is huge where she is going. All classes are going well except for chemistry which is harder. And lastly, she has her first ever boyfriend at age 18! She met him this summer but he attends a college 4 1/2 hours from her and only 30 minutes from her home! I am trying to handle this correctly! Any suggestions?
Thank you! This article couldn’t have popped up on my fb page at a better time! I so needed to read it! Thanks for helping other Moms!
My freshman son seems to want nothing to do with me. We’ve always been close. His college is about 3 hours from home. I’m trying to step back and give him space. I’m not pestering him about grades. I ask questions about what classes and activities he enjoys. I try to provide info about what we are doing at home. I’ve sent a photo or two of his dog when she’s looking especially cute. He sends a brief text message a couple of times a week. Sometimes just one word. I know he contacts friends from home frequently.
We recently brought our 11 year old grandson to a public welcome educational evening event at the college with my sons permission (not a surprise visit) and my son was rude to us. He was fine with his nephew but barely spoke to me. I had brought him a couple of his favorite baked goods and he didn’t even thank me. I was crushed at his cooI treatment. He’s always been a warm, affectionate kid. I understand he needs to establish his independence, but I need some contact. I’ve tried to tell him I’m happy he’s off on a new adventure and that I want good things for him. I just want to hear from him. I keep telling myself to give it time, and to give him space but it seems to be getting worse.
Sounds like your son is wired a lot like mine! And it DOES hurt! My son doesn’t deal with emotions such as sadness or grief very well, so in order to avoid feeling homesick himself, or exposing himself to my sadness, he just shuts me out and stays above the fray.
I also think some kids just process this whole going to college transition in a detached way. Keeping parents at an arm’s length is how they are figuring out the new-ness of everything, and they lack the maturity to balance the parental relationship with consideration and grace. I like to think it’s because they are so confident in the steadfast love and support of their parents, that they take for granted that we are humans who have needs too!
Kids also go through many phases in life where they “test” the limits of things, including how we’ll react and if our love will remain through new circumstances. My suggestion is to continue to do exactly what you’re doing–you’re doing a wonderful thing by giving him some space as well as appropriate love and support…which I guarantee you that he still needs! It’s tempting to withdraw when we get rejected or pushed aside by our kids, but sometimes powering through that rejection and simply remaining a gentle, steadfast person of unconditional love is what they are really trying to figure out.
Hang in there, keep doing what you’re doing and try not to take it too personally. You’re not alone, and this too shall pass!
I needed to read this blog tonight. My boy is living away from home. He has a great job and a great girlfriend. It is everything I prayed for and was hoping he would accomplish. Now I wish he was back home with me. He rarely texts back and doesn’t answer the phone when I call. I am crying almost every day as we were so close. I feel like a little of me has died. And my other child starts high school in a week. Lots of emotions and feels. Praying for strength and wisdom to be able to be gentle but also honest with my feelings. Help!
Wow, what a blessing to read this. I shed some tears, but I appreciate this glimpse into my future.
I hope this article helps.
Wow, Kami, (it’s hard for me to type “my” name that way!) – I sure needed this. We have hit that “glitter has worn off” stage and have had several conversations that have ended with me simply saying “adulting.” I signed up to give my girls a little lift with your care packages, and truly I have been blessed just as much as they have through this! Thank you so much for your words of encouragement for both me and my girls. Bless you!