Being independent might take time, says UA director of family programs

Jeffrey Kelly | @jeffkellyjr, Culture Editor

While embarking into adulthood, whether that be college or life after college, it’s important to note that there will be endless transitions. Some happen all at once, like moving for work or school, and others happen more gradually, like losing track of old friends or the constant presence of your immediate family members. But no matter what, transitions don’t have to be a bad thing. 

According to Kim Sterritt, the UA director of parent and family programs, transitions are vital to developing and becoming independent, even though some of them aren’t always easy — like, for instance, leaving one’s family.

“I’m well past my college years, right? I have a family of my own, I have kids of my own, but it’s still hard to say goodbye to your family members,” Sterritt said.

According to an article by the Health Alliance Plan of Michigan, over 30% of college students experience low-level homesickness, and about 69% of first-year college students experience severe homesickness.

Sterritt said especially now, with the added stress and circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s even harder for people to leave their comfort zones.

After over a year of various degrees of quarantine, family dynamics have changed in minor or drastic ways; now, those relationships are left unmanaged while students head off to college. 

“Whether it’s during quarantine or because they were at home, doing school or whatever that is, they’ve probably been more attached to the hip with their family members than we’ve seen in years past when we started the academic year,” Sterritt said. 

Though some students might take an “out of sight, out of mind” approach with these relationships once they leave home, others are caught off guard by moments of homesickness and feelings of separation anxiety.  

“Whether the student lives at home or goes away to attend college, the move represents an emotional separation for both parents and child. For most, the end of high school marks the symbolic end of childhood,” Dr. Jess Shatkin, a psychiatrist at New York University’s Child Study Center, told U.S. News.

And as students traverse this new transition into independence, Sterritt said many would realize that there isn’t a “magical moment” that makes someone an independent adult; it all depends on the student. 

Several incoming freshmen said they don’t really feel like adults yet and are just taking it as they go. 

Sterritt said independence might happen faster for some than others, but mainly it’s all about finding what feels comfortable and making progress from there. 

“And if no progress happens throughout all four years of your undergrad experience, that is where we have an issue,” Sterritt said. “If you have not grown in your independence between day one and graduation, then that is more problematic.”

However, Sterritt noted that seeking support from family members doesn’t necessarily signify a lack of independence. 

“Even once you graduate from college, there are times where you might still rely on familial support, whether it’s financial or emotional,” she said. “Right now, in particular, we’ve seen a lot of students move back home after graduation because of everything that is happening, and I don’t think that that means that they are not independent, but I think that that can probably affect their sense of independence, but sometimes circumstances just necessitate that.”

Making that transition easier starts where many healthy relationships start: communication. When moving away from family, it’s important to communicate what you want and your expectations. 

However, Sterritt said she understands that these conversations don’t always come naturally because of how meta it is to “communicate about communication.” Instead, many try to demonstrate how they want communication to go without coming to an official agreement.

Just like having a sense of independence, Sterritt said it is important to understand that conversation depends on the individual in familial relationships. For some relationships, constant communication is healthy, and for others, less communication is healthy. 

As students grow and change, adjustments to the “frequency of communication” will continue to support healthy relationships. 

Sterritt said that, as the need for communication changes, those conversations begin to feel redundant, but they are still necessary. 

“I think it shows a level of maturity for students to bring that up with their family members,” she said. “It is hard, particularly if the student’s needs are different than the parent or family members’ needs.”

She said both parties should try coming into the conversation with a mindset of compromise and remember that what works for one relationship won’t always work for another. 

“There are various relationships that you’re managing, right? What works with one parent or family member may not work with a different one, or a sibling, or grandparents or whatever,” Sterritt said. “So make sure that you’re thinking about managing all of those different types of relationships — again, you’re talking about conversations about conversations with a lot of different people.”  

And while you’re communicating your needs to your family members, you’re not only growing with them; you’re also learning how to best communicate what you need for future relationships, whether they are romantic, platonic or professional. 

“Self-advocacy and identifying what you need in order to be successful, and in order to maintain healthy relationships and your own health is a skill that you have to learn and become comfortable with in order to optimize your ability to be successful going forward,” Sterritt said. 

In the end, regardless of how individuals choose to communicate or what their level of independence is, Sterritt reminds us that sometimes everyone just needs reassurance that everything is going to be okay. 

For parents and family members who are feeling overwhelmed and uninformed about their students moving to college, Sterritt said Parent and Family Programs is happy to provide them with the information they need. 

She said that for students, there are so many resources to help them if they need reassurance, like RAs, the Dean of Students office, the Counseling Center or her office.

“I think the important thing is that you don’t try to manage it alone. If you’re feeling like you need reassurance, if you’re feeling that anxiety or that stress, don’t try to process it by yourself internally because that’s probably, it might work for some, but it’s probably going to be more beneficial to talk it out and make sure that you’re utilizing your resources because there’s so many on our campus that want to help,” Sterritt said.