When they decide not to go back

How to respond when your college student won’t return to college!

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First step: try not to freak out. 

Second step: listen and validate. 

Third step: have a plan!  

When the college student you’re so proud of drops the “I have decided I’m not going back to school” bomb, there are a lot of ways you can respond.  Notice how I didn’t say ‘react?’  If you react, it will most likely come from a deep-seeded place filled with subconscious beliefs and values.  Shock, frustration, disappointment, shame, and indifference are only a couple responses you might have.  Although you may be feeling all of these, for the sake of your young adult’s well-being, please keep them to yourself.   Freaking out will only create a traumatic moment in your relationship and send them down a shame spiral that may feel temporarily hopeless in getting out of.  No matter how much emphasis you put on education, right in this moment you’ve got to let that go.

Listen and validate is the best thing you can do.  “Okay.  That’s interesting.  What made you decide to not return?  How will not returning impact you? If this is a finalized plan, you will need to make sure that you withdraw from all classes so we aren’t sent a bill.”  And just listen.  Hear them out with their reasoning for why they aren’t wanting to return.  If it’s clear that it’s mental health related, make note.  Staying home to see an individual therapist locally will not be enough to relaunch them into adulthood.  If you are co-parenting, it’s important that you and your partner get on the same page – immediately.  If one parent doesn’t seem to think there is a problem with your adult child living at home without a plan, you’ve got a crisis on your hands!

College isn’t going anywhere, so validating them not wanting to be in school right now is normal.  In fact, they don’t ever have to go back to college if they don’t want to.  That’s not something that’s necessary to share in this exact moment though.  Set your boundaries after validating.  “Okay, we support you in not returning to college.  What is your plan though?  Unfortunately, your options are to be in college or do something else.  Living at home without a plan is not an option for you.”  Now wait for it.  Your young adult’s jaw might have just hit the floor.  Their mind is racing and what you can read on their face is the silent tantrum of “what do you mean I can’t live at home rent free, where you cook and clean for me, and I don’t actually have to work if I don’t want to!?”  Then the sadness washes over their face.  Why?  Because they don’t have a plan.  That’s where you can step in.  “I’m happy to help you create a plan.  Since school is starting in 6 days, you will have 6 days to come up with where you’ll be and what you’ll be doing.”

This may sound horrifying to parents out there.  Especially if you struggled with your young adult leaving the nest to begin with.  Let me be clear:  Every family that has hired me who had a young adult who had left college and was living at home – they’d worn out their welcome.  Every single client.  The parents were at their wits end and feeling rather hopeless themselves. 

For anyone reading this who has a young person in this exact situation, brace yourself.  If you don’t have a plan, they may be living with you for the foreseeable future.

For anyone looking for additional resources around mental health, substance abuse, college transition support, or parent resources you can find them on:,  follow @lilleyconsulting, or visit  If you’re on a podcast kick, also check out the new Podcast series titled Success is Subjective.

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