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Boundary Wars

Nine months ago, I faced one of the toughest moments of motherhood when I sent my oldest son off to college.

Now I’m gearing up for the next crisis: He’s coming home for summer break.

Don’t get me wrong. I’ve missed him, and I’m thrilled to have him back. However, he’s been on his own for nine months doing whatever he wants whenever he wants. Meanwhile, the rest of us—my husband and two younger children—have settled into a harmonious and structured rhythm. I’m worried that the arrival of our “Hey, I’m an adult now” son may rattle our household.

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It turns out, I’m not alone. Psychologists report that it’s common for parents to welcome newly independent college students home with a mixture of excitement and dread.

They key to a smooth transition, they say, is communication. Here's how to tackle "the talk," as well as the most pressing issues.

Expectations: Give your son or daughter a few days to unpack, unwind and reconnect with friends, and then “sit down and talk about your expectations for the summer,” recommends Mitesh Parekh, Psy.D., a child and adolescent psychologist in Pasadena, Calif. Acknowledge that you know things will be different because they’re used to more freedom, but that they will have to make some accommodations for the family.

Curfew: “It’s important for kids this age to have one,” says Parekh. “They are still living in your house and the later they come in, the more concerned you are about what they might be doing.” What’s an appropriate curfew? Let your child suggest the hour, and then negotiate as needed, he recommends. In Parekh's experience, he says, young adults come up with surprisingly reasonable rules when they have a say in the decision-making.

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Chores: Kids at college are used to leaving their dirty towels and dishes around, and may chafe when asked to pick up after themselves. Address this by saying something like, “We valued having a clean house while you were gone, and we’d like to keep it clean,” suggests Parekh. Give your child a few duties around the house, or get his buy-in on pitching in as needed. Not only will your house be tidier, but you're also giving your child some practical life skills he’ll need when he’s on his own. One chore to leave out of the equation, however: a clean bedroom. Insisting on this is a losing battle, says Christine Schelhas-Miller, a faculty member at Cornell University and author of Don’t Tell Me What to Do, Just Send Money. “Kids see it as an autonomy issue—it’s their room and they should be able to decide how to organize it.”

Boyfriends/girlfriends sleeping over: “Individual parents have to make a decision that fits with their values,” says Schelhas-Miller. “If they don’t feel comfortable with this idea, they need to tell their child. In most cases, children will understand where their parents are coming from and will be on board.”

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Family time: Don’t be hurt if your son or daughter drops off his or her bags at the front door and pretty much disappears for the summer. This is perfectly normal. That said, families need some quality time together to stay connected. Parekh suggests planning at least one family dinner a week. Make it fun by cooking a special meal and organizing a bonding after-dinner activity such as game night or a movie.

Money: Agree on what expenses you’ll cover (for example, food and basics like shampoo) and those you won’t (dinner with friends, shopping sprees at Urban Outfitters, etc.). If you’re considering charging rent, think again, says Parekh. Most returning college students don’t make much money—if any, since many have unpaid internships—plus this arrangement may be alienating. A better idea is to save some or all of the money your child earns for his living expenses in the fall.

Keeping in touch: College students aren’t used to anyone keeping tabs on them, but of course parents want to know they’re safe. If your son or daughter isn’t communicative about his or her whereabouts, Parekh recommends saying something like, “We respect your privacy and independence, but we need to know where you are so we won’t worry. We’d appreciate it if you’d keep in touch with phone calls or texts.”

Personally, my son has yet to drink the communication Kool-Aid. I’m still waiting for him to return the text I sent him five days ago. But I’ve now got my strategies in place and will plan a meeting the week after he returns. So, my dear independent son, hurry on home. Throw your suitcase on the stairs and see your friends. Then, we’ll talk.

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