A recent Ask Amy column featured a letter from a college student with a common problem; parents who want to exert a high level of control. Here in the US, school’s been in session for a little over a month now, and the winter is coming on, and I suspect that the number of students struggling with the adjustment to college will be increasing, judging from my own experiences in college. The newness has worn off, it’s getting dark and cold, and, well:
Dear Amy: I love my parents, but even though I got straight A’s in high school without their assistance and have never gotten in trouble, they constantly nag me about homework and grades.
I thought this would end when I went to college, but I was wrong.
When I admitted I save my homework for Sunday afternoon, my mom chastised me.
She gets upset that I shield my personal life from her, but when I do share, she finds something to criticize, nag and/or make snide comments about.
When I ask my mom to stop, she either gets defensive or tells me it’s her job as my mother.
I am still recovering from depression, so I need more support and acceptance from my parents and less passive-aggressive criticism and nagging.
— Frustrated Freshman
There are a couple of interesting things going on here, and I wanted to tease out one in particular because I was just talking about it with Anna: Policing of study habits. Many people seem to believe that there is a specific ‘right’ way to study and that if you don’t study that way, you’re doing it wrong. Staying up all night to study is wrong, even if your sleep schedule is actually better suited to studying at night. Studying with music on is wrong. Moving while studying is wrong. There’s a whole long list of things touted as ‘good study habits,’ like ‘don’t leave your work until the end of the weekend.’
To me, what makes a good study habit is what works for a given student. By all performance metrics generally recognised and accepted, this student is doing well. Studying at the end of the weekend hasn’t precluded making good marks and going well in school. Clearly, it’s a system that works for this student.
For this student, there’s an added dimension of depression and the need and desire for support. When talking about your personal life or your approach to school results in judgmental comments and nagging, you tend to shut down, which means that you can’t access that support. Nagging this student about study habits sets up two things: The student is being told ‘school, you’re doing it wrong’ and is being told that support isn’t available, even if it’s wanted, from family members. That has an extremely isolating effect.
What does Amy have to say?
Dear Frustrated: I hope you are working with someone at your college’s counseling center. Because of your depression, you should receive ongoing support.
A counselor at school will be familiar with the issue of hovering parents and will help you establish a healthy and mature distance from them.
Your mother’s behavior has consequences. You should continue to reassure her but not offer details about your life which she is likely to criticize.
Because your parents are having such a hard time letting go, you will need to establish the distance necessary to grow. If your mother starts to nag and criticize, you should say, “Mom, I don’t like this, and it’s not helpful, so I’m going to have to check in with you later.”
Do your best academically, and also join organizations that will bring you in contact with other students outside the classroom.
And don’t drink. Alcohol is woefully omnipresent on most campuses, and using it will aggravate your depression.
Ah, ok, a lecture.
This student seems to have it pretty together. Depression is recognised as an issue and it seems likely that the student, you know. Knows there is a college counseling centre, although it’s worth pondering how accessible that centre is. How easy is it to make an appointment? Is it possible to discreetly get information? Many students don’t seek mental health counseling because they are afraid of the associated stigma, or because they can’t figure out how to work the appointment system, or any number of things.
The advice with the script to the mother is pretty sound; after all, the student did write in for advice about dealing with parents. But the added lecturing seems a bit unnecessary to me; the student isn’t asking for advice on dealing with depression, but specifically for advice on navigating a relationship with parents. That’s a separate, although related, issue. The question here wasn’t ‘how can I deal with depression in college’ but ‘how do I set boundaries with my mother while also asking her for the support I need?’ And the student specifically mentions wanting more support from the parents, not just in general; this is a letter about a family relationship and how to make it work.
Readers who have dealt with dynamics like this, how did you deal with it? What advice would you give the student on addressing the dynamics of the relationship?