University of Virginia

When does your teenager become an adult?

A recent spate of articles on “Letting Go” and “Helicopter Parenting” surrounding the difficult event of parents dropping teenagers off at college included one about parents who choose to stay around after the drop-off for a couple days.  Why would they do that?  “Just in case Junior needs something.”  Maybe that’s not the real reason.

Colleges are seeing this more and more and some are scheduling specific times to say goodbye.  Some have workshops on transitions.  Some suggest parents rediscover their romantic lives.  Expensive therapy!

This brings up the question, when does your child become an adult?  Is it 4pm on drop-off day? Is it his 18th birthday; her 21st?  Obviously there is no one answer, but the reality is that when you leave them at school, as far as everyone else is concerned, they are adults.  The challenges that start from that moment are huge:  coed dorms, roommates, parties, homework, varied schedules, group activities, a new town to drive around in.  How your teenager handles these has nothing to do with the definition of when they become an adult and everything to do with where they are on the maturity spectrum.

Our job as parents is to start early, giving our teens pieces of freedom while they are in high school, seeing what their choices are, and talking about them.  The more we do that, the better they can handle what college life throws at them.  So parents, talk to each other about how you are doing.  How much freedom does your son or daughter have to make choices, including ones you don’t agree with?  After drop-off time, you won’t even know the choices they make.  Start preparing them for that now, at home, where you can help.