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New York Times / Life - Entertain

When Your Happy-at-School Son Becomes a College Dropout

And: a reliable roommate who bails on plans, meditation-induced meta-anxiety and books to delve into during a recuperation.


Christoph Niemann

Last week, our son came home from his first semester at college and announced that he would not be returning in mid-January. So far, he’s been very uncommunicative about what the problem is. When his mother and I try to broach the subject, which we do frequently, he becomes aggravated or shuts down. But we’re shocked. He was excited to go to college, and when we spoke with him on the phone during the fall, he seemed happy. How do we handle this?

DAD

My intuition (often wrong, but never in doubt — by me, anyway) is that your son was rattled by something late in the semester: finals, maybe, or a roommate or romantic interest. Otherwise, you would have heard the drumbeat of midyear departure long before last week, no? If so, his trauma is still fresh.

Your homework assignment: not a word about college for the next 72 hours. (Arbitrary? You bet.) But it seems inevitable, and perfectly understandable, that you and your wife may become a teensy bit hysterical (if not relentless) in your investigation of his bombshell. Not helpful. This grace period will give your son some time to work through whatever upset prompted his decision and perhaps allow him to reverse course on his own.

When you do broach the subject again, avoid the “what happened?” angle. A young adult is entitled to some privacy. Instead, focus calmly on what he intends to do in January in lieu of college. Gap years and time off are more common now than when we were kids.

But a few weeks is probably not enough time to put together a sensible plan. Here’s hoping this pickle de-brines itself. (And for readers freaking out, as I did, about the financial hit: relax. I confirmed with a couple of schools that spring tuition is probably not payable until early 2018.)

Good Roommate, Bad Party Host

I got a new roommate in November. We met through mutual friends. He pays the rent on time and cleans up after himself. So far, so good. A few weeks ago, he suggested we have a party on New Year’s Day. I wasn’t super into it, but I went along with him. Now, we have 20 people coming, and my roommate told me he’s been invited to hang out with some people he’s always wanted to meet. He’s bailing on our party! I can’t cancel now. What should I do?

MARTHA

First, establish that the people your lousy roommate is meeting on New Year’s Day are not Joni Mitchell or Cardi B. Some special exceptions apply. (No, they do not.) It’s possible, though unlikely, that your roommate will abandon his plan if you explain its self-centeredness to him. You may also find some relief in clearing the air.

But I see a different opportunity here: Your roommate has shown you, starkly and early on, that he is selfish and undependable. Believe him. Carry on with the party; insist he pay for half. And going forward, stick to sharing quarters. If you want a closer relationship with a roommate, replace him.

An Uncle’s Annoying Mantra

I am extremely anxious. I see a therapist to work on it, but I’ve always been anxious, even as a girl. One of the least pleasant developments at family holidays involves an uncle who began meditating five years ago. He is convinced that meditation is the answer to all my problems. Whenever I see him, he bullies me about learning to meditate. This stresses me out even more. What can I do?

ANONYMOUS

Talk back — to your anxiety, if not your uncle. I don’t want to generalize here, but my anxiety is forward-looking. It makes me frightened, in advance, that I’m not up to managing an interview or negotiation, or even a social engagement. But when I examine my actual history, the anxiety is dead wrong. I handled them fine. Reminding ourselves of prior competence doesn’t erase present discomfort, but it can lessen it.

Try this with your annoying uncle. Your fear that you can’t handle his bullying is mistaken. You’ve been handling it for years. Remind yourself of that. If you’re up to it, add: “Thanks, Uncle Joe, but I’m happy with my treatment plan.” And now, for my (hopefully unstressful) finale: Meditation has helped me a lot. It may not be the worst thing to check out, in your own good time.

Words to Recover By

I am having surgery soon and will be laid up for a couple of weeks. In the past, you’ve made some book recommendations that I enjoyed. (Elena Ferrante, the Patrick Melrose novels.) Any thoughts about what I might read while recovering?

SUE

Recuperation (and other solitary stretches) call for immersive reading. I’m about to re-enter the world of Henry James: first, “The Portrait of a Lady,” magnificent on its own, but now, to set the stage for John Banville’s new novel, “Mrs. Osmond,” which picks up where “Portrait” leaves off. It could take a while. Care to join me, Sue? (And good luck with your surgery.)

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