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May 2, 2023

Ask Lisa Podcast - Episode 117

My College-Bound Kid Is “Soiling the Nest.” Help!

Episode 117

What’s the best way for parents to respond when their high school senior wants to spend every waking minute with friends? A mom writes in asking if it’s okay to require her teen to spend time with the family before heading off to college. Dr. Lisa walks us through the complex psychological dynamics unfolding for high school seniors and their parents. Teens are often working to consolidate a new identity and can be remote and prickly around the house. Parents often feel annoyed with their college-bound kid and, simultaneously, like they aren’t ready to let go. Do teens continue to hold their folks at arms length? What about the example being set for younger siblings? Dr. Lisa answers these questions and more.

May 2, 2023 | 29 min

Transcript | My College-Bound Kid Is “Soiling the Nest.” Help!

Ask Lisa Podcast, Ep. 117: My College-Bound Kid Is “Soiling the Nest.” Help!

The Ask Lisa Podcast does not constitute medical advice and is not a substitute for professional mental health advice, diagnosis or treatment. If you have concerns about your child’s well-being, consult a physician or mental health professional.

The following transcript has been automatically generated by an AI system and should be used for informational purposes only. We cannot guarantee the accuracy, completeness, or timeliness of the information provided.

——

Reena Ninan
I kind of wish that I could be a high school senior right now. Right? When you have senioritis kicks in and it’s okay.

Lisa Damour
It’s okay. I will tell you my sixth grader said to me the other day is it too soon for me to have seen neuritis and no kicks in and they are? Usually it’s loaded. Actually I was about to say they’re usually enjoying themselves. It’s complicated, right? There’s a lot of big feelings swirling around for high school seniors right now.

Reena Ninan
We could do a whole episode on that. But we’re not going to today. We’re actually going to talk about something though about kids. And they leave the nest or their app and nest and they’re in the nest and how they can sort of affect the family dynamics. Lisa, we got this letter. It says Hi, Dr. Lisa and Reena, our eldest will be starting college in the fall. She’s now hanging with friends and all the time trying to spend weekends away with friends as if it’s her job. Is this a normal form of quote soiling the nest? Should we just get used to it? I’m trying to walk that fine line of having her explore her independence and grow into an adult. But alas, she’s part of a family. I would like to force a little more family fun. But my husband is in the mindset that may just make her eyes roll and not want to participate. Am I asking too much to ask her to spend one family night a month with us going to a movie or playing a board game or whatever? She has younger siblings and I don’t want them to think that you can just opt out of being part of a family when you’re almost 18. I miss her sometimes. And she’s still here. Is she just trying to get my heart ready for next year? What should I do? Thank you for your help. Oh, I feel a little emotional. This is where you see the end of the road. I hate saying that because it’s not the end of the road. As Dr. Lauren Steinberg told us parenting continues…

Lisa Damour
Exactly. Continues for a very long time. It’s the end of a chapter I think is a good way to think about it. But this letter I think could have written been written by anyone of hundreds of 1000s of parents right now. I mean, this tension in family life when you have a high school senior who’s headed off to college, who is trying to spend every waking minute with their peers. And the parent is feeling a sense of longing and missing already and is wondering how much they can ask for time is feeling hurt. This is so common, it is so complicated and so common. And I’m just so grateful for our incredible listeners and their incredible letters.

Reena Ninan
The letters are remarkable that we get from all over the world. Lisa, is… So you’re saying to me, this is normal.

Lisa Damour
It is very typical. And there’s a few ways we can think about it. One is they’re saying goodbye to their friends, they’re really not sure what’s going to become of these friendships. Even though of course, kids today do stay much more connected to their high school friends as a function of social media than say maybe your I did. But these are precious friendships. These are also kids have been through a lot together, right? The cohort that is graduating right now had the pandemic land on them in the end of their freshman year of high school, you know, so they’ve really liked their high school experience was very much shaped by COVID. So they want to be together, they want to spend every waking minute together. And I think for a lot of high schoolers, whether they’re conscious of it or not, they’re thinking, I’m gonna see my family like, I don’t know what they know where to find me, like, no matter what, we’re going to have an ongoing relationship. I’m worried about this kid over here, who I really love and who I’m not sure I’m going to stay in close touch with.

Reena Ninan
But I’ve raised them I’ve paid for everything. I know that I’m not going to see them. You know the term that she used, which really stood out to me soiling the nest. That’s what this parent wrote. What does that really mean? And is it the case because I understand this parent I got emotional at the end of that letter.

Lisa Damour
Yeah, so interestingly, I don’t know that I would call what she describes in the letter as soiling the nest. I will call this a kid who’s just like super Busy and wants to be out and about and it can feel rejecting. When I think of soiling the nest, which also is happening in homes right now, it’s kids actually being pretty difficult to live with high school seniors being pretty difficult to live with. And it can take any variety of forms, right? Sometimes they are suddenly saying, I don’t want to curfew because I’m gonna I’m not gonna have a curfew next year. So why should I have a curfew now, right. So they’re starting to buck rules that have been in place. Sometimes it’s just that they are too cool for school, you know, a little removed a little bit distant from family, finding them sort of, you know, pedestrian in their interests. Somehow, somehow, beneath their consideration, you know, that there’s a way in which high school seniors can start to grate on the family on the way out the door. And I ran into a friend of mine a few years ago, when his one of his kids was headed off to college. And I was like, how’s it going? And he said, Oh, my wife is ready to put his stuff out on the street. She was over it absolutely over. But she he didn’t say stuff. But you know, like, it was just like he was over it. And sure she was over it. So this is a common dynamic. So what I would say first and foremost, to this parent is, you know, actually, if your kid has been pleasant when they are home, that puts you ahead of a lot of families, right? So much, much more typical to this moment in time and family life is both that the kid wants to be out and about with their friends constantly. And also when they’re home, they are often like not that fun to be around.

Reena Ninan
Right. I do like this point, though, that the parent writes, you know, is actually asking you should they require family time? Can fun be forced at this point?

Lisa Damour
Okay, so I don’t think you can force fun. What do you think, Reena?

Reena Ninan
Okay, if I can’t force someone, I just want you to hang out with him, and want me and he, and just want to be around me because I’m not going to see you.

Lisa Damour
Okay, so let’s just go with that. So let’s just sort of let go of the idea that we can make people have fun, I love the way the person who wrote this letter put that. But I do think it is completely fair, for with enough runway for parents to say to kids really of any age, but maybe especially kids who are now you know, circling the home and and, you know, holding a very like wide distance between them and their families. I think it is fair for the parents to say, listen, we’re doing this thing as a family, mark your calendar, we’re gonna say we’re holding this time, we need you there. And with enough runway, I think it is fair to expect. And I think she just said like, once a month. I mean, it wasn’t wasn’t a huge amount. I think that is 100%. Fair. And I think you can even say, We love you, we want you with us. And we’re expecting to have a nice time with you. Right, just sort of set the expectation that the kids not gonna sit there and be like a pill the whole time. I will say, when kids come home from college, this is also necessary that if you’ve got you know, Thanksgiving that you expect them to be at from a certain time to a certain time or a big family event or you know, some kids getting confirmed in the family, we need to give them runway, we need to give them runway so that they can make plans because they are busy, busy, busy making plans with their friends.

Reena Ninan
You know, one thing you’ve always said is whether it’s a funeral or family event, or people coming to visit that might be rude, to sort of set expectations early on, and to say, this is what. So it’s interesting to hear you say like Thanksgiving, or Christmas or the holidays, to be able to say, this is the time where we need you to gather, I understand that you’re gonna want to see your friends, but I need you here this moment. If you’re trying to set up, you know, those last few weeks before they go away. What do you think really works in getting them if the goal is to spend more time with them, but they’re rolling their eyes? They don’t really want to do it? Is there a point where you can’t force it, Lisa? Or is there a strategy that might work to help them to want to hang out and do something?

Lisa Damour
I think sort of it’s yes to both. So I think at some level, you just can’t force it. And I think part of you know, the key to happiness is realistic expectations in life. And I think a realistic expectation is that your high school senior who’s headed off to college is maybe not going to want to spend a whole lot of time with the family in those last few weeks. And I think as long as you just don’t take it personally, like really appreciate that they’re trying to consolidate their identity as an independent person, they’re trying to spend time with their friends that it’s not about you. I think that that can take some of the sting out of it. I also think there’s real value in having family rituals and family time together. And so one thing that I remember doing when my older daughter went off to college, is we made a real plan about the last night before we drove her to school, you know, and we did a get together with her grandparents we let her choose where we went out to dinner. It was really very meaningful. And and it was again though, like we set it up, I think three or four weeks in advance so it was a non negotiable and she wanted it to Oh, but she also, as she made plans with her friends could start to work around those dates.

Reena Ninan
Hmm, that’s so smart. Again, setting expectations. Lisa, this parent who’s asking is concerned because this child has younger siblings and the example that this child is setting saying, you know, I don’t have take off my parents it’s not a priority. What about those younger siblings and that example that’s being set?

Lisa Damour
Well, it’s a really important question, I guess the way I would think through is, this is the first time your family’s ever done this right where one kid is getting ready to go. And it will be followed by other kids getting ready to go. And I think one of the huge challenges and this really did come up in our wonderful conversation with Larry Steinberg is this dynamic shift as kids age. And so in addition to not holding the same standard for family participation as one used to with a kid who’s almost out the door, I think we can also recognize that, as the younger kids move into this position, they’re gonna maybe have similar feelings to the kid who is wanting more and more independence. So what I would say is, voice it, say, you know, our expectations as families while you’re still in high school, you know, or while you’re still not looking at heading off to college right away, you’re with us this amount, roughly this amount of time you join us for these things, we don’t have to give you too too much notice. But we also recognize that once you’re at the end of your senior year, and once you’re in the summer before college, that changes and our expectations change. And so yes, we are letting your sister bag out of things that otherwise we would typically last year if required. But she’s in a different time of life. And I think, you know, this is something we do all the time as parents of kids of two different ages. And I’m sure you’ve done it to where you’re like yeah, your older sister is getting to do that. And when you are her age, you also will get to do it. So it’s less about sticking to the rules, or applying the rules evenly to everyone has one always has and more about recognizing that the dynamic for one particular child has changed and that that dynamic will change for the other kids in time.

Reena Ninan
I keep thinking about this mom and how painful I actually it’s like a huge jab me in the heart every time we do these leaving the nest episodes because it makes it clear to me that I’m going to have to let go at some point. But how do you address this mom who’s already missing her child?

Lisa Damour
It is hard. It is hard. Oh Mmm, there’s no getting around the fact that it’s painful. I also feel like we know you’re going to be the most prepared parent in the history of parents, because we’ve thought about it so much together.

Reena Ninan
I cry every time I was getting them. I mean, we read these letters ahead of time, and we know what they are. But I don’t know what it is. Sometimes I read them in the middle for a podcast, and it gets so emotional, because you have all the feels for this moment. What’s your advice to her?

Lisa Damour
Well, and just to just to invest in this for a minute, our kids can’t really like kids are fun. And my experience is, the older they get, the more interesting and compelling they get, and, and more enjoyable just as your company and then Reena, and not to like not to twist the knife for you, you’d like all their friends, often. I mean, this is something else that happens as kids get into high school and their friends are coming over. And of course, I’m obsessed with teenagers. So like I door, you know, my kids friends. And so not only are you saying goodbye to your kid, you’re actually saying goodbye, you know, if you’re going to teenagers, and you’re like your kids, friends, you’re saying goodbye to a cohort that you have watched grow up, that you really love that may be hanging out of your house sometimes. So it sticks, it stinks, there’s no getting around it. But what I would say is that this is one of those points in development, where there’s a rough passage that I think is often followed by a really lovely time. And what I mean by that is, there are times in development where kids are really trying to consolidate a new identity and figure out what they are all about. I would say 13 is a really ripe time of this for kids who are you know, starting to separate and feel, you know, individuate. And in those moments, they often shove away from their parents or find their parents very annoying, no matter what the parent does. And then once that identity is consolidated, usually 15 1415 kids were friendly, or again, like they feel like they know who they are. And so they can tolerate who we are we can get along. I feel like that recurs right now, for high school seniors, and also for for college kids, that they are developing a new identity, they are figuring out what they are about, they’re getting used to the idea of themselves as a college student. And that process involves pushing away from the parent finding the parent sort of annoying in their own way. And that once that identity is fixed in place again, or starts to get established, they get to college, they hopefully make a happy landing, they make their friends, they figure out what they’re about they, they start to feel comfortable in the diet, you know, in the identity of a college student, they relax again, and they like us again, and they can be warm with us again. And so what I would say to this parent or any parent in these shoes, take the long view, your kid is trying to consolidate a new identity, that those points in development almost inevitably involve pushing the parent away a bit. And if the parent can tolerate it, not take it too personally give that young person room to figure out that new identity, they come back to us in a fresh and wonderful way.

Reena Ninan
Wow. I think it’s it’s the hard part of letting go. You know, it’s nice to hear you say that, I think but it’s so hard to let go. What about preparing this daughter for the fall? What’s your advice on that?

Lisa Damour
Well, it’s interesting, because another layer in this dynamic is that often there’s a whole lot of stuff the parent wants to talk about, with the kid, or the kid who they cannot find nowhere to be, you know, comes in late leaves early, is rushing out the door, whenever they do see them. The parent is like, Wait, there’s all these conversations I still want to have with you about sex or about drinking or about, you know, how you’re managing your grades. And and it’s another tension that enters into this. So again, what I would say is get on their calendar. And this is a different way of interacting with our kids. We’re not always used to saying when do you have time for this conversation? Or when can I you know, not be interrupting you. But this is something I hear often from families where they’re trying to even have like logistical conversations with their kids about packing for college. I mean, even things like that. And every time they see their kid, their kid is like grab the car is like has the car keys in hand in his head out. And again, rather than taking it personally there is huge value in saying, all right, we need to I need a half an hour of your time to go over your packing or what we’re doing with this or there’s something I want to touch base with you about when it’s a good time for you. That will work much much better than waiting in the kitchen for them to run through and seeing if you can catch them.

Reena Ninan
Can I tell you there’s this mega Bollywood star she was Miss Universe her name’s Aishwarya Rai. She’s now the mother of I think a preteen. And she went on Letterman, which is a big deal. They there was really very few of any I think she was the first sort of Bollywood star to come on Letterman. And he was asking her kind of India and her family and she said, well, at least I don’t have to make an appointment to see my parents because she was living at home with her parents like I was appointed. And I just sort of feel like we have to force this and make time and get on someone’s calendar. But you’re saying you do you do to meet that time and you won’t get it.

Lisa Damour
Or it’ll just be friction. I mean, I think that that’s the thing, I think that we really need to recognize they are busy with so many things that we may or may not even know about, right. But they’ve got all of these commitments to frenzies all these desires about the last things they want to do at home before they go to college. And so just presume this is someone with a really busy agenda that you may or may not have a lot of information about. And just don’t expect to catch them off the cuff or, you know, like, the other thing, Reena that I want parents to be prepared for, is this really interesting dynamic that I’ve seen unfold a lot of times in my clinical work, where suddenly the kid who is headed off to college gets this like rip roaring summer romance going at home.

Reena Ninan
What? I don’t have time for that, Lisa. We don’t have time for that.

Lisa Damour
And the parent, and like it maybe like a high school person that they were friends with, or maybe someone new. And it is for parents, like you think that it hurts to feel like your kids running around with the friends they’ve already had. I’ve had cared for so many films for the prints, like what is going on, like, it’s not gonna last as a romance. And we’ve been completely thrown over for this person. And like, there’s no way this is going anywhere. I just want parents to be prepared for that comes out of the blue. And one of the ways I think about it, clinically is if a teenager can focus all of their energy on what they’re going to do with this, like pop up romance, if they’re going to stay together, or if they’re going to break up and try to you know, not be in touch or they’re going to be friends. If they think about that, they don’t have to think about leaving home. And leaving home is loaded for teenagers too. And I think there are some unconscious processes that unfold like finding a hot romance out of nowhere, that can actually help to sort of serve as a happy distraction, or at least a very compelling distraction from broader questions about how they feel about saying goodbye to high school, how they feel about saying goodbye to the their childhood, right? I mean, you hit that line at 18. Like, whatever happened happened, you’re moving on. And so I also want parents to be prepared for this. And again, don’t take it personally, they’ll come on back.

Reena Ninan
Hot romance, I was not ready for that. In fact, I’m gonna have to ask my husband to pretend to be another person so I have a hot romance or something to look forward to! This is just so hard!

Lisa Damour
It is so hard. It is hard.

Reena Ninan
And you know what I feel like you are like a good map, app, GPS of like, “police ahead, speeding light.” You know, you are just giving us this roadmap as to what comes ahead in ways that we just don’t see coming.

Lisa Damour
That’s good. I mean, I’m glad, right? I mean, that’s what I think, I hope I can do. And, and I think there’s two messages in that. One is prepare yourself for x, right? Like we see these things happen, you know, routinely. The other is, to the degree that I or any psychologist who works in this space can say, okay, so there might be a pop up romance, your kid might be really, you know, prickly as they head out the door. Don’t worry, by second semester of college, when they sort of figured out what it means to be a college student, they usually are much friendlier and easier to get along with. What it also is saying is this is not personal. This is not about you and your kid, this is development unfolding. In its predictable, if not always entirely pleasant way. And I really feel like you know, the billboard for families of raising teenagers and young adults is so much that feels personal is not personal. And the less personal you take it, the better everything goes.

Reena Ninan
What great advice. Great advice. Let me just ask you, do you think it’ll always be like this, like I just even when they become adults, I want them to come home and want to hang out with me I want I want them to want to come back and not have this to be forced. What have you seen in your experience?

Lisa Damour
Most of the time, this is short lived. Kids are prickly, or remote, or just so so busy, they you know, can’t really find time for the family. Most of the time this was short lived, that they do come on back and want to enjoy us and like us when they’ve got things sorted out on their end. I think that part of what that will hinge on is how the parent reacts right now. And it’s hard when you feel rejected. It’s also hard when you could actually be in kind of a jerk, you know, and sometimes that happens where you know, when a kid is getting ready to go off to college, they can act in ways that are really not acceptable at home. And I think to lay the groundwork for them to feel comfortable coming back and feeling welcome into family life in the future. What I would strongly advise you know, if your teenager is acting in a way that’s less unpleasant is to say look, you know, we don’t do that around here or I don’t talk to you that way like Do it again, take another swing at it, you know, so to not even overreact react to that, while also making it clear, like we’re not punching bags, we’re not going to allow you to treat us this way. But again, making a lot of room for like, they’re going through a lot. It’s a pretty intense time. Give them a do over. Don’t take it. You know, personally, I feel like that should be the title of this episode. Don’t take it personally.

Reena Ninan
It’s hard, though not to, you know, and especially your emotional. When you talk about summer romance, you just you feel like half of your heart is left already, you know, it’s never going to be the same. And then I think you forget, when the kids are little babies, the days are so long, but then you get to a point you’re like, oh my god, that went by so fast.

Lisa Damour
It went by fast and they’re fun, they’re fun when they’re older. I’ll tell you my experience. When my older daughter was leaving for colleges, I was actually okay for most of the summer, like I you know, because there was something to do, there’s always something to focus on. Like, we know you’re just very busy getting your kids ready for college, it takes a lot of energy and time. And, and it was when we came back from the dinner the night before college, and I was saying goodnight to her, that I really got very, very weepy that there was something about it being the last night that I was saying goodnight to her in our home with her as a, you know, a person who had not yet gone to college. So, you know, we’ll all have our moments and, and yet, this was also what we want, right? We’ve also been driving towards this, we’re trying to get them to move into the world, either enrolled, employed or enlisted. Like the goal is that they actually move along and do things. So we want to focus on that too.

Reena Ninan
What a great reminder, i There’s a quote, I think it was Pope John Paul, I can’t remember who was saying mothers are like Moses, they prepare kids for a promised land they may never see. I think that’s sort of true. Right? Isn’t that beautiful?

Lisa Damour
I love that. And I think that is hard, right? There is a sense of like, you are giving them to the world and you won’t have you know, the kind of knowledge that you did have even your kids moment to moment mood, you know, they will be more remote from you. And, and it’s um, it’s a transition for everyone.

Reena Ninan
It really is. Oh, it is? Oh my gosh, maybe I will cry. Oh, my tears before eight years before my kids get get go because it is. And these letters are just so remarkable that we get from everywhere. Right? They are amazing. I love it. So what do you have for us, Lisa, for Parenting to Go?

Lisa Damour
I really want parents to know this is the end of the chapter, not the end of the book. And Reena, I don’t know that I’ve ever told you this. But somehow I got it in my head when I went to college that parents did not take their kids to college, I was insistent on going along. And my parents to their credit, let me like put me on a plane. And United airfreight had a couple of my boxes. And I got myself to college alone, where I discovered everyone else had their parents are helping them move in. But they tolerated that much to their credit. And what I really wish they could have known is that when it was time for me to go to graduate school, I called them and I was like, Hey, guys, do you want to drive from Denver to Michigan and helped me set up my apartment. And we did. And I just wish so deeply in that moment when they were standing we Billy in the Denver Airport sending me off and I I was just going, I was not weeping. I wish so much that they could have known that I’m not too long after that. We will be setting up my apartment in my next phase of education. So this is the end of the chapter, not the end of the book. There’s a lot more to come.

Reena Ninan
What great advice and a great, great reminder. Oh, wow, this was a great episode. Thank you so much, Lisa. And I want to let you know next week we’re going to have a really interesting episode Lisa, something that you see, often it’s going to look into cutting and a parent who discovered that her daughter has started cutting and we’re gonna look into this phenomenon. Why does it happen? And what can parents do and what you should know. I’ll see you next week.

Lisa Damour
I’ll see you next week.

The advice provided by Dr. Damour here will not and does not constitute - or serve as a substitute for - professional psychological treatment, therapy, or other types of professional advice or intervention. If you have concerns about your child’s well-being, consult a physician or mental health professional.

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