20-year-old Penny came home from college during the middle of her fourth semester, defeated after feeling overwhelmed for months. Unable to keep pace with full time college, she failed every class her third semester and withdrew halfway through the fourth. On Tuesday, Penny was sobbing in my office about returning home to her childhood bedroom. She feared she might get stuck back in childhood and never return to her path to adulthood.
On Thursday, Penny’s parents sat in the same spot in the office, without Penny. They were fuming. Their daughter had not held up her end of the bargain at college. Parents paid tuition and rent for two years, and she only produced credits for the first year. They knew their daughter suffered from anxiety and so they had provided her with every available resource to support her in college. They were shocked to learn she had stopped attending classes during two consecutive semesters. After years of saving for college, Penny was throwing away her opportunity. In addition to missing classes, her parents felt she was overspending. They feared she would continue excessive spending and never act like a responsible adult.
Both Penny and her parents shared the same desire: for Penny to regroup, figure out what had gone wrong, learn necessary skills, and return to college as soon as possible. Penny wanted freedom and opportunity; her parents wanted to see responsibility and accountability. The end point would be an independent adult. The problem was, none of them knew how to move out of frustration and defeat and toward a new start.
During the first week home, Penny spent most of her time in her room crying. When she came out, her parents asked her when she planned to get her act together.
The family needed a plan to move forward, so we sat down and wrote a simple list:
Make A Specific Plan/Agreement
Spell out the details of what you want Penny to do now that she is home.
Type up the agreement. Give everyone a copy or post it on the wall.
Keep your rules as simple as possible
Hold Her Accountable
Resist giving advice. If she is required to work, tell her. But don’t tell her where to apply.
Make her find her own solutions
Leave her to operate within the rules.
Be Clear About Rules and Consequences
On the written plan, note how you plan to hold her accountable for the rules. Tell her in advance, in writing, what she can expect to happen if she violates part of the agreement.
Review it together.
Stay Calm and Mindful
No shouting, name-calling, boundary violations. If you’re upset, take a walk. Talk to a friend or counselor.
Parents vow not to make financial concessions under pressure.
Parents discuss decisions with the co-parent.
If you lose your cool, your message may not be heard.
Require a formal meeting with both parents and a formal request in writing to get any extra money.
Decide in advance what you plan to do if the whole deal fails.
Do everything as you set out in the beginning. If something comes up you had not planned for, make a plan for the new issue and discuss it before handling it.
Dr. Deuter is a psychiatrist who specializes in the care of emerging adults.