How to balance your school life and your relationships back home

Two therapists explain how to manage the shifting dynamics with friends and family when you go away.

Two therapists explain how to manage the shifting dynamics with friends and family when you go away

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In the Hollywood version of the summer before college, school chums swear they'll stay friends, even though the audience knows they won't. Parents wave goodbye to their babies who, if everything goes well, will return as adults. Everyone's crying. Nothing will be the same.

While that's a maudlin exaggeration of most people's actual experience — those kids are going to be back for the holidays and probably again when they're done their studies — therapists Janna Comrie and Nicole Chudzinski say the stereotype isn't totally off. Students who go away to university enter a whole new social environment during an important developmental period. When they're done, they aren't going to be the same and neither will the people they left. But that doesn't mean they'll be worse-off.

We talked to Comrie and Chudzinski about some of the changes students will most likely experience in their relationships when they go away to school, and asked for their advice on how to maintain relationships with the friends and family that they want to stay connected with.

Things will likely change for the better

Leaving for university will likely mark the end of some of your relationships. This isn't a bad thing. You'll make new friends and they're often better ones, said Comrie. "High school friends are usually just the people that lived in your school catchment area and were sort of like you in some way." In post-secondary, the friend pool is much larger and you'll share at least one interest with the people in your program. Much more than before, you're choosing your friends. "A lot of people find that when they go away to school, the quality of their friendship improves."

Not only are you going to drop a lot of friends, your relationship with your parental figures is also going to change. "Separating and being your own person is a really important developmental milestone for confidence and creating self identity," said Chudzinski. "It's scary to pull away from comfort and familiarity, but that discomfort is essential for growth." University is typically when a lot of that separation and growth occurs. Comrie agrees that it's time for the training wheels to come off. "The process of making mistakes and figuring out how to make them right will feed back into your self esteem. You'll become more self-reliant and have a better sense of self." 

How to stay in touch

Independence is important, but neither Comrie nor Chudzinski recommend a complete break with the past for most students. Usually, students have some relationships that they want to maintain, with their parents, family, and close friends. This doesn't have to interfere with personal growth, says Comrie, it can actually help. University is a novel social situation, and can be intimidating or even overwhelming. For many, staying connected with people who know  and care about them "reminds people of who they are and what they bring to the table. It can help them put themselves out there."

For the relationships you do want to maintain, there are no hard and fast rules about how frequently or how intensely you should stay in contact. Some people speak to their parents every day on the phone. Some almost never do, but get along great when they're home. Sometimes contact will start off as frequent and taper off as people on both sides get used to being apart. Relationships vary.

In any case, Chudzinski told us that the quality of the contact is much more important than the frequency. "Pay mindful attention when you have time together face-to-face or on the phone. Making an effort to plan phone dates or keeping a family Whatsapp chat going are both ways you can demonstrate that this relationship is valuable to you." The student who never calls their fretting parents is a stereotype, but Comrie says this works both ways. Students who have gone away notice when mom doesn't call, so both sides have to make an effort.

How to reconnect

A lot of students find returning home challenging. Comrie mentioned several clients who, after being away during transformative periods, found they could no longer relate to their old friends. Many feel isolated when their old friends' interests and experiences are too different to relate to or just seem trivial. This is another reason to keep in touch with at least some people from home. "Going back is already going to be a big transition. It's going to be a lot harder if you are completely disconnected," said Comrie. She says that social media can come in handy in this situation. Keeping up with your old friends at a distance can help you decide who you want to reconnect with. 

When you do link up with old pals and even family members, remember that things have changed. "Assume they are not the same person they were when you left," Comrie advised, "and take the time and effort to see what's new." Reconnecting with people from our past can be really rewarding, provided we approach it in the right way and are actually interested in learning about the new people that our old friends have become. A shared past can provide a great foundation for a future relationship. Chudzinski says, "Relationships really are incredibly flexible and resilient when there is respect and understanding. When we can accept people as they are."

Clifton Mark writes about philosophy, psychology, politics, and other life-related topics. Find him @Clifton_Mark on Twitter.


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