What NOT to do after an Older Adolescent Leaves for College

Do not immediately re-purpose the vacant bedroom left behind

Posted Aug 06, 2018

Carl Pickhardt Ph. D.
Source: Carl Pickhardt Ph. D.

“Well, why not?” think the parents. “When the nest starts to empty, why not put the vacant space to other use?”  

Since their older adolescent has started living away from home at college, why shouldn’t they repurpose the old bedroom to meet other family needs? 

However, an ensuing dialogue might sound something like this. 

“You’ve done what to my bedroom?”

“Well, we didn’t think you’d miss it now that you’ve mostly left home.” 

“Just because I’ve moved out doesn’t mean I want to lose my space in the family! And what about a place for my personal stuff? Why don't you want to keep my room for me to come back to. and be remembered by?"

What’s going on?

Maintaining one’s home bedroom matters a lot over the course of the last and most challenging stage of adolescence, Trial Independence (ages 18-23.) At this major adolescent jumping off point, it’s emotionally important to know that one has a family belonging place to return to, whether to visit for pleasure or for an emergency stay when there may be a need to boomerang home for a while.  Best to think of the older adolescent’s “leaving home” for college not so much as a final “departure” as the beginning of a “transition into more independence.” 

Consider what parental responsibilities might be at this delicate time – first, to keep the young person well connected to their family place while they are lodging elsewhere; and second, to provide a safe place for emergency return if independent footing in the world is seriously lost


Why does “home” still matter to a young person who has recently moved out? Family “home” is a potent mix of social belonging, physical place, and personal history. Specifically and symbolically, the reality for the young person is that it will be many years before she or he creates a living place of comparable value to the place of one’s growing up. Thus, leaving home comes with some basic fears:

  • Of being cut off,
  • Of losing one’s place,
  • Of being by family forgotten.

For many young people, it takes some measure of courage to move out and on into a new and different residence. To help make this move feel safe, parents can act to make membership in family remain secure. 

  • Rather than treat the departure as a time to leave the young person entirely alone, they can maintain meaningful family contact; 
  • Rather than removing physical evidence of family membership, they can maintain the home place where the young person still keeps belongings and belongs;
  • Rather than grow out of mutual touch, they can maintain ongoing communication so shared sense of family history continues to grow.     


As I noted in my 2011 book, “Boomerang Kids,” precise estimates are hard to come by, but the New York Times (August 18, 2010) estimated that 40% of young people in their 20’s move back in with their parents at least once (“What is the Matter with 20-somethings?”) Young people may come back home for just a short stay between moving back before moving on, but for many others it is an emergency response to some common young life crisis, eleven of which I described in the book. 

·      Missing home and family,

·      Mismanaging increased freedom,

·      Flunking out of college,

·      Job loss and unemployment,

·      Roommate problems,

·      Broken love relationships,

·      Substance use and abuse,

·      Indebtedness,

·      Undue stress,

·      Emotional crisis,

·      Fear of the future. 

Parents often underestimate the difficulty of the last leg of growing up, what I consider the hardest of the four adolescent stages. The demands for adequate self-care, the risky temptations offered by unsettled peers, the hardship of maintaining self-discipline, the increased availability of recreational drugs, the uncertainty of direction in life, and the widening scope of personal responsibility, these all conspire to make this final adolescent passage challenging indeed. 

When a young person comes to crisis and has no welcome home and home room in waiting, normal crises and casualties from lost independent footing can be made immeasurably worse. Often, crash arrangements can be exploitive and risky.

So: unless parents have pressing practical needs to the contrary, I suggest not immediately repurposing the bedroom of an adolescent who is off at college, or otherwise starting to live away from home. Better, I believe, to keep that space as is for a few years, and for the young person to know that her or his family place is being securely held.

Finally, parents need to keep their expectations about college completion realistic. According to the National Center for Educational Statistics, "About 60% of students who began seeking a Bachelor's degree in a 4-year institution in Fall 2010 completed that degree in 6 years." Before you start paying for a college education, and arranging loans, make sure you check that institution's student retention rate which, according to the Journal of College Retention, on average hovers around 50%. 

When a last stage adolescent loses academic hold in college, many of them will need a home to come home to for a while, to regroup, recover, and get ready to step off into independence again.

Next week’s entry: Using an Object Lesson to Correct Adolescent Misbehavior