What to Do When Your Student Comes Home a Different Person

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coming home
The countdown has dwindled (to your great joy, to your kid’s great despair) and the end of the Gap Year is now upon us! You look up from the kitchen table to see your child on the couch and it’s like a year hasn’t passed. But it did, and while your child might look the same more or less (save for that new tattoo?!), their mind and soul might be a little different.

Getting to know that new person takes time. We know you love them, but how do you set both guardians and child up for success when they come back and they aren’t quite like you remember.

Before They Come Home

Establish open lines of communication. Before the Gap Year, during, and especially after; it’s important that you’re able to “talk it out” with your kid. If you have expectations for their participation in, or attendance to, certain family affairs, let them know in advance. Invite them to help plan meet up’s or other obligations – your kid will appreciate that you value their input. Ask them, as well, what they’d like to do in their first few weeks home. Discussing what these first few weeks will look like can help mitigate any misunderstandings.

Discuss curfew, chores, and house rules. Your kid just experienced a whirlwind of independence – anywhere from choosing their own meals (and meal times) to deciding when they want to leave the house and when they don’t. That degree of independence can be liberating, but you must discuss with your child if self-government holds up in your household.

  • Can significant others stay the night?
  • Is drinking permitted?
  • Should curfews be abided by?

Instead of deciding top-down how their life back home after their Gap Year is going to look, have a dialogue about what would be best for both parties.

Remind them you love them. When you come back to a life that feels entirely different, with a new sense of self and new life goals, insecurities can be quick to bubble up.

  • “What if they don’t like me now?”
  • “What if I don’t fit in anymore?”
  • “How am I going to end that relationship?”

These questions can lead to much vulnerability. Tell your kid, time and again, that you love them for who they are, who they are becoming, and for who they were. Prepare a soft landing for them in this tumultuous period of their lives.

The First Weeks Home

Transition your “role” as parent – not as a lawmaker, but as an adviser. Your kid will be navigating a LOT of emotions as they return home, not least of which is their newfound self-sufficiency and relative “adulthood.” As a parent, it’s critical that you offer support during this period and a backboard of advice. You can talk about the gambit – their life abroad, their next life plans, college, grades, relationships, friendships. But ask out of genuine curiosity and with a willingness to offer objectivity or new perspectives, not to mine for reasons to chastise or punish your kid. This will help establish healthy boundaries as your wee one is growing up.

Remember: you might be different, too.

Just as your kid coming back might not feel like the same ol’ Timmy or Susie, you might feel different to them, too. Maybe having an empty-nest shed new insights on your personal life, maybe you’ve offered forgiveness to someone you swore you never would, maybe you love Pilates or the Pittsburgh Pirates now. Whatever it is, keep in mind that you’re also a dynamic individual and your kid might have a hard time adjusting to your “new you.”

Don’t Pressure Your Kid to Maintain Old Habits

If your child comes back a vegetarian, don’t make their favorite ribs for a “Welcome home!” meal. Maybe your child has expressed concerns about their lethargy, their apathy, or their inability to focus on getting important things taken care of. Rather than tempt them to join you for a last-minute movie spree, encourage them to maintain and actively pursue their goals.

Remind them you love them! This is just good advice all-around, and worth mentioning again.

When your child returns from abroad, they’ll be experiencing a heavy dose of reverse culture shock. While it’s a difficult psychological experience for your kid, it can also do a number on Mom and Dad (or other guardians). Be patient with your child as they figure out what their life back home looks like after all of their time away. Their new self will be your favorite version of themselves before you know it!

How to Support Your Traveling Student From Home

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let go.
Well done! Despite feeling nerves like never before and wanting nothing more than to squeeze your kid tight and never let go, you’ve managed to support your child as they’ve gone through the (admittedly-more-arduous-than-you-anticipated) process of preparing for a Gap Year. But now they’ve taken off from JFK/SFO/ATL, and are en-route to the learning experience of a lifetime. So, now what?

Even though you’re thousands of miles away, you, as a parent, will still play a critical role in the success of your child’s Gap Year. As per usual, you’ll wear many hats – friend, confidant, parent, cheerleader, soundboard. But new territory to navigate will also present itself: without the convenience of face-to-face interactions and a shared physical presence, finding ways to connect can be more challenging than expected.

So how can you support your child while they’re thousands of miles away on a Gap Year, anyway?

Encourage Making Good Decisions

Here’s the reality: you don’t know exactly what your kid is experiencing every day. And that’s pretty scary. Hopefully you’ve instilled some street smarts in your kid over the years that will allow them to handle their new day-to-day road bumps. In the end, the best you can do (both for your child and your own sanity), is to consistently encourage them to make good decisions.

Good decisions come in handy in a variety of circumstances. Coach your kid into thinking clearly through their actions, considering others throughout that decision-making process (especially in light of their role as a visitor in a foreign country), and ultimately making choices that aren’t always “easy” but are always “right.”

As a parent, it’s your moral obligation to be the (slightly) naggy reminder of all things safety. Gentle prompts to be travel-savvy, such as storing money in multiple places on your person, are not overbearing – they’re necessary. Be the voice of reason in case your child is getting caught up in all the fun.

Frame Conversations Appropriately

While it’s great to learn about their trip to Victoria Falls and (gulp) when they hung over the edge of somewhere called “The Devil’s Pool,” try to redirect conversations to focus more on what they’re learning and what they’re gaining from their overall experience. Fun and adventure will inevitably be a part of their Gap Year (and it should!), but ideally, your child has more robust goals for their trip than a couple of cool photos.

When you have your check in with your kid, ask them more pointed questions about things they’re learning about themselves or personal reactions to experiences they hadn’t anticipated. Don’t ask them to give you the play-by-play. Instead, challenge your kid (and yourself!) to avoid giving a chronological “report” of their experiences abroad. Ask them about their favorite “teacher” – even if it’s an unconventional one like their homestay mother – and if their goals have changed or adjusted throughout their experiences. What new insights do they have? New passions? New ideas for a sense of purpose?

Yes, you want to hear about toppling all over each other as your kid and their friends recreated the Tower of Pisa in Italy, but don’t allow these surface-level discussions to be the core of your check ins.

No Guilt Trips: None!

We know you miss them. We know it’s hard. We know that your spouse just isn’t as much fun without your kid around. We know that you have more free time now than you know what to do with. But do not – under ANY circumstances – guilt trip your child because you are heartsick for their company.

There’s a difference between communicating your love for them meaningfully without sliding into the “I wish you were here’s” and the “Well, if you hadn’t left us forever…” eyerolls. Now is not the time for being overly dramatic. Now is the time for you to find new avenues for personal emotional support healthily.

Guilt tripping your child can backfire in a major way.
You might get satisfaction in the short term but it’s harmful to the relationship in the long term. Why create feelings of regret or resentment for your kid when they should be focusing on learning all the lessons this great big beautiful world has to offer?

Develop a New Identity for Yourself

Having a child “fly the nest” isn’t an easy process for any parent. After years of investing time and energy and laundry detergent and love into a little person, you suddenly realize they’re all grown up and capable of making important decisions independently. They walk away and you’re left feeling less-than-whole.

Rather than wallow in self-pity and an identity crisis, look at the experience as an opportunity. It’s an invitation for you to explore new understandings of yourself. There’s a lot you can do with your newfound brain space; devote it to hobbies or activities that DON’T include memorizing your child’s extracurricular schedule.

Your child will only feel wholly supported when their parents are feeling stable and grounded.

Smile. Laugh. Be Interested.

By the 11th phone call of their epic trip, you might start feeling a little zoned out when your kid is giving you updates. Sure – your kid may drone on, and sure – you might not need every detail about that mango sticky rice, but it’s important that you are fully present for your long-distance conversations with your kid. It can be tempting to have one eye on your favorite reality TV show as you chat. But your kid needs you to listen, respond, engage in conversation, and treat them like their stories are as cool as they think they are.

Give Them Space

Whether you regularly Snapchat your kid goofy photos or are still LEARNING HOW NOT TO TEXT IN ALL CAPS, it’s safe to assume you have regular in-person and digital communication with your kid. While the ongoing daily conversations serve a purpose, they’re not realistic for your child’s stint abroad. They need to be fully present and actively participating in their experience (not to mention WIFI can be spotty in other places).

Instead of demanding daily check ins or four-hour-long gab seshes every weekend, invite your kid to propose a check in schedule that works for them. It may change over the course of their Gap Year, depending on their needs and their availability. Phone chats might happen once every three days for a period and then be separated by two to three week stints.

Remember: the underlying goal of a Gap Year is for your kid to develop some serious self-awareness, and this can be hindered by constantly disengaging through phone calls home.

Finding your groove as a long-distance-parent takes time. You might feel things you’ve never felt before. You might hit the ground running. You might flounder a bit. Just as your kid is learning in this new stage of life, so are you – practice patience and self-love. You’ll get there!

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