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College is Looming, But Will We Kill Each Other First?

College is Looming, But Will We Kill Each Other First?

By Mir Kamin

Got tweens/teens? We’re trying a new advice column here at Alpha Mom to address your questions for the older-kid crowd. We hope you enjoy! And if you have a question to submit, hit me up at alphamomteens[at]gmail[dot]com.


“Fed Up” writes:

Here’s one I know you’re dealing with, yourself, and I’m curious how you’re doing it. Our high school senior is chomping at the bit for us to “let me be an adult” ever since he turned 18 this winter. Bedtime? He’s 18! Curfew? He’s 18! Chores? In a minute, he’s busy! And he’s basically a good kid so it’s not as though we’re dealing with anything major—he’s doing well in school, is polite/appropriate outside of the house, and is committed to a college for the fall (a few hours away, so he won’t be living at home)—but something about the combination of his birthday and the looming end of high school seems to have him believing he’s 100% in charge of his own life now… except when he needs some money, of course, or wants us to do something for him. Our efforts to help him understand things like “reasonable interdependence” and “our money, our rules” are being met with uncharacteristic thick-headedness. I don’t want us all to hate each other by the time he leaves for college, but UGH. This attitude is driving me bonkers! How do I keep arguments to a minimum while we navigate these last few months?

I laughed so hard when I read this, you have no idea. Not at you, understand, but at my knee-jerk thought of “Well, she’s asking the wrong person about this one.”

The short answer is: I have no freaking clue.

The long answer is:
First and foremost, try to remember that these sorts of chafing and bickering moments are perfectly normal and part and parcel of the final separation needed before your kid leaves home. I don’t know a single family who didn’t spend those last few months joking that they were really ready for Junior to get out. Second, this is your child navigating his new independence—with all the charm and nuance of a sledgehammer—while you try to figure out how to be helpful instead of reactive. And believe me, I get the inclination to be reactive, because eighteen years I’ve been teaching you the proper way to act and yet here you are acting like the world owes you something.

So! What do you do? There’s a school of thought that refers to this time as Second Toddlerhood. Just as when your son was a toddler and exploring his newfound abilities and you gently guided him away from danger and toward behaving like a civilized human with love and clear boundaries, now it’s time to do it again, but with a different set of parameters. You didn’t take it personally when he tried to stick his fingers in the electric socket, you simply guided him away and told him that could hurt him. Now when he informs you that he’ll be home “whenever,” it’s fine to calmly let him know that’s not sufficient, as you are still concerned for his safety (or whatever).

Also: greater privilege comes with greater responsibility, both at home and in the world. If he wants to be treated like an adult, he needs to act like one. What that means in your home is something you’ll need to figure out (with your co-parent), but as you do, that needs to be spelled out for him in crystal-clear terms, even if it seems impossible that he might not understand it just because it’s “obvious.” (Teens tend to be not so good at “obvious” when it’s not what they want.) So, for example, maybe he no longer has a bedtime enforced by you, sure… as long as he’s getting up on time for school and not bothering anyone else with his late nights. That’s fair. And maybe he gets to stay out later, but only if he’s taking care of his chores at home and being respectful. He’s 18, but you’re paying the bills, I assume, and that means you get to set some expectations.

If he pushes back, well, it may be time to talk about what is being provided for him and what his life would look like if it wasn’t. This segues nicely into what that will look like once he starts college, too, if you’re participating in paying for that. While I’m not a fan of “as long as I’m paying I get to control you” (that’s… not helpful in terms of guiding a young adult towards independence, for one thing, and kind of mean, for another), chances are excellent that you’re paying for the home in which he currently lives and the food he eats, if not also providing a cell phone and maybe a car. If he feels he’s old enough to be free of your rules, perhaps he’s old enough to pay room and board. (I do know families who have done this. In most cases, I think just a conversation about it may be enough to snap a kid back to reality.)

If you need to write down exactly what you’re looking for (chores X, Y, and Z… participation in these family events… getting a job this summer… etc.), then do that. It may help everyone to see it down on paper. If you simply need to explain that you are more than willing to let him spread his wings as long as he understands that basic respect and participation in the family need to continue being part of that, that’s great. You will talk about it one way or another, more than once. There will be improvement. There will be backsliding. There will be days you wonder if he’s just become an entitled jerk. All of this is normal.

One last thing—I am a big fan, at this age, of the seemingly incompatible dichotomy of both 1) trying not to take things personally and 2) calling them out when they hurt your feelings. For me, that means I let a lot of stuff go, sometimes through gritted teeth, but I will also, sometimes, say, “You know what? I feel like I am doing a lot for you, and giving you a lot of latitude, too, and in return you’re just being rude and mean to me. That doesn’t feel good.” There’s the “managing responsibilities” part of becoming a grown-up, and there’s the “being aware of how you treat others” part of becoming a grown-up. Both are important. Both take a lot of time to get right.

Chances are excellent that by the time he leaves for college, you’ll be both relieved and gutted. That’s normal, too. (Please remind me of this when I’m going through it in a few months, okay??)


Don’t forget that you can submit your own question to alphamomteens[at]gmail[dot]com.

About the Author

Mir Kamin

Mir Kamin began writing about her life online over a decade ago, back when she was a divorced mom trying to raise two regular little kids and figure out what she wanted to be when she grew up. Now ...

Mir Kamin began writing about her life online over a decade ago, back when she was a divorced mom trying to raise two regular little kids and figure out what she wanted to be when she grew up. Now her life looks very different than it did back then: Those little kids turned into anything-but-regular teenagers, she is remarried, and somehow she’s become one of those people who talks to her dogs in a high-pitched baby voice. Along the way she’s continued chronicling the everyday at Woulda Coulda Shoulda, plus she’s bringing you daily bargain therapy at Want Not. The good news is that Mir grew up and became a writer and she still really likes hanging out with her kids; the bad news is that her hair is a lot grayer than it used to be.

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  • Roselyne

    April 25, 2016 at 10:11 am

    Also, maybe try looking at it as what YOU’D chafe at if you, say, moved back in with your mom and had to listen to someone else’s house rules? (You’re a rational adult, so…) 

    If I moved back in with my mother (oh, man, there would have to be some crisis for that to ever be an option…), things like ‘we serve the food at X hour, which is what there is for dinner’, and ‘you ask before taking the car’, and ‘you let us know when you won’t be home because otherwise the other people who live here and care for you worry’, or ‘family dinner at least 3-4 nights per week because that’s how this house rolls’. all rational! Great! Things like ‘you pay for gas in the car you use’ and ‘you do chores because you are a participating member of this household’, and ‘you speak to other occupants of the household in a civil tone’… well, duh, right? And if I fell down on the chores, I’d expect a parent nice enough to take me in to have Chat about Reasonable Expectations. 

    But (again, for me)… enforced bedtime for someone who IS functionally an adult? Curfew (for no reason)? Family dinner every night (for a 10-year-old, sure. But seriously, a night or two away from family, for a teenager who otherwise behaves well, can be a lifesaver) AISH, I’d be super snotty and feeling trapped and looking forward to an escape too! 

    So… maybe some of the snotty attitude is just about feeling trapped with boundaries that aren’t really reasonable anymore? And if you try applying your house rules to yourself and see what you’d feel trapped at having imposed by someone else, you’d be able to see what you need to shift to get a better result and cooperation on the stuff that’s actually important. 

    Also, something to keep in mind: you’re paying for college, home, food, etc, and that gives you a certain amount of responsibility and say in things, absolutely. But, legally, your kid is old enough to join the army and play with grenades and buy their own gun and get married and sign legal documents and get a bank loan, and you don’t actually have a legal right to know about ANY of it. At this point, you have the right to enforce standards for your household, but you also gotta trust that you’ve raised an adult who can be relied upon to behave sensibly. Maybe an enforced bedtime is a bit much, considering? 

  • […] such a disaster, I never even told you to go read my latest advice column over at Alpha Mom, which you should really read if you have a high school senior in your house you are thinking about […]

  • MR

    April 25, 2016 at 11:50 am

    I’m the youngest of five kids, and my mom always said that that the teenage years are designed to make it easy to let them go when they leave the house. This is totally, completely normal. It is also part of his separating from you guys so it will be easier on him when he leaves. Military families go through something similar before deployments. It is not unusual to get into a big fight with your spouse right before they leave for deployment. It sucks, but it is a self preservation thing to make it easier to say goodbye. I’d suggest picking your battles. Chores are a must. I can’t tell you how many times I heard, “You are part of this household, and that means you need to help out.” growing up. Of course, now I say it to my own kids. My mom never compromised on the curfew thing, she simply pointed out that she was our mother and therefore worried about us, and wouldn’t sleep well until she knew we were home safe.

  • Sheila

    April 25, 2016 at 2:47 pm

    I have a kid who’s headed to college (just committed! Yesterday! SEVEN WHOLE DAYS BEFORE THE DEADLINE, CALM DOWNMOMSHEESH) and I think part of what’s happening to me is that I tend to overexaggerate her less-than-lovable behavior because it is my way of helping with the impending separation. It will be a little easier to leave her at her dorm room if I keep telling myself how self-absorbed she is every time she does something I don’t like. (Don’t get me wrong: she *is* pretty self-absorbed, but still.) Maybe if I like her a little less things will be less hard come August. Does anyone have any Kleenex?

  • Mel B

    April 25, 2016 at 5:20 pm

    Remembering when I was in high school and had a car, I remember we bought a cell phone. This was when they were bag phones. OH MAN.  Anyway, the only reason I had the phone was to update my parents on my whereabouts.  The deal was that I could stay out until midnight and my parents needed to know where I was.  If I was going to be after midnight I had to call and update them.  I never had a problem with this and things were great.  I was also expected to help clean the house on Saturday or Sunday mornings when mom was cleaning.  I was involved in a lot of school activities and sports so the dinner at home thing wasn’t strict.  I do remember my brother playing travel soccer and baseball.  We always travelled together as a family to all his games.  It was not talked about but it was expected that we support each other.  This is long but I hope it helps.