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How should college students engage with their families during this season of staying at home?

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May 18, 2020

College is supposed to be a time of freedom and discovery—finding new friends, developing a new lifestyle, exploring new interests. But now, most of us are back in our homes with our families. And while extended time with family may be one of the greatest blessings of this pandemic, it can also be one of the biggest challenges.

With a return to home has come a return to arguments with my siblings and miscommunication with my parents. Being part of a family brings challenges of aligning schedules, priorities, and expectations. It’s easy to revert back to old habits and frustrations in the midst of these changes, and the nature of family relationships often means that these frustrations are more readily expressed.

While relational conflict is common to all families, it can feel particularly poignant during this stage of life. In the transition to adulthood, young adults must reconcile their natural desire for independence with their parents’ authority within the family. 

How should college students navigate this unique time and stage of life within the home?

1. Strive for peace. 

With the added anxiety and fear surrounding the pandemic, many of my family’s conversations have quickly escalated into hurtful arguments. Anything from laundry to social distancing to politics can trigger deeper insecurities and discontent.

But I see the Lord doing the sanctifying work that can only come through the close relationships of the home, forcing me to face my own selfishness, self-righteousness, and impatience and consider the heart of Christ. “Keeping in step with the Spirit” (Gal. 5:35) means daily dying to ourselves—acknowledging our sin, repenting of it, and living instead “with all humility and gentleness with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace (Eph. 4:3). 

It can be especially hard to respond with gentleness when our main concern is to prove to our parents that we’re no longer children and to fight against being treated like one. But the gospel frees us from the pressure to prove ourselves and assert our voice. Rather, in Christ, we can “count others more significant than [ourselves]” (Phil. 2:3), knowing that our worth comes from the Lord, from his deeming us co-heirs of the Kingdom. The remarkable way of the cross is the way of self-sacrifice, for Jesus’ ultimate victory came not in asserting his authority at the expense of others, but in demonstrating his authority by laying down his life for the undeserving (Phil. 2:5-11).

I wonder how we would treat others if we truly believed that the Lord is near (Phil. 4:5)—that he’s here with us, and that he’s coming again soon. When conflict arises, we might be the first to apologize, to fight division with grace, and to humble ourselves before the Lord and before others. So let’s strive for peace, for it’s in this good fight that we will be conformed more into the image of Christ (Rom. 8:29).

2. Honor your parents.

I used to think of the biblical command to honor our parents as meaning simply to obey their commands, but as children mature into adults, relationships with parents are defined less and less by instruction and obedience. Interestingly, the Greek word used in the Ephesians 6:2 direction to “honor your father and mother” denotes a veneration and recognition of value. So while we may still honor our parents by submitting to their authority in obedience, we should seek first and foremost to honor them in our attitude and care.

“Clothing [ourselves] . . . with humility” (1 Pet. 5:5), we’re reminded that no matter our college course load, we still have much to learn. I’ve been humbled by the opportunity to witness my parents at work, and I’m finally able to grasp the significance of their care for me throughout my childhood. I see my dad diligently continuing to care for patients despite new challenges of telemedicine and organizational change. And I see my mom sacrificing her time and energy to care for her mother and mother-in-law, tirelessly buying and washing groceries and thinking of creative ways to embrace them in the family.

Interestingly, the Greek word used in the Ephesians 6:2 direction to “honor your father and mother” denotes a veneration and recognition of value. So while we may still honor our parents by submitting to their authority in obedience, we should seek first and foremost to honor them in our attitude and care.

Nevertheless, regardless of our parents’ contribution to the family, the Bible teaches us that human worth does not come from ability, competency, or knowledge, but from God’s creation of us in his image. We can honor our parents simply because they bear the image of God and have a unique role in bringing us into the world as fellow image-bearers. With this recognition, there is no place for contempt or disdain.

Instead, we might look to praise, encourage, and express gratitude. We might put their needs above our own, perhaps showing them how to use new technology, helping to prepare meals, or simply offering emotional support. After all, many parents bear the additional weight of navigating new work environments, dealing with financial stress, and caring for their own elderly parents, all while trying to protect and guide their families. If nothing else, we can honor our parents by praying with and for them, interceding to the Lord on their behalf and for their blessing and comfort during this time.

3. Love your younger siblings.

Coming home, I realized that I never treated my relationships with my younger siblings with the same intentionality that I did with mentoring relationships at school. But with my younger sister finishing her last year in high school and my brother finishing middle school, I’ve realized the unique opportunity the Lord has given me to share wisdom and encouragement in these pivotal stages of their lives.

One LifeWay Research study found that 66% of American young adults surveyed stopped attending church between the ages of 18 and 22, one of the leading causes being the move away from home. But college students who are followers of Christ have the unique ability to point their younger siblings toward the truth and help prepare them for the future, speaking into life and culture in a way that parents might not be able to.

This might mean simply offering to listen, not being afraid to ask the hard questions, or sharing lessons we’ve learned during our transition to college. Praying with and for our siblings can help resolve conflict and share truth when it may not be appreciated, and we can help our siblings honor our parents in our words and actions.

A word to parents 

While children should honor their parents, parents can love their children by extending grace, particularly toward college students facing unique challenges during this time.

The Lord has likely used your child’s college experience to grow and shape him or her more into his image, with new interests, skills, and knowledge. The child who left your house after high school is probably not the same person who’s returned, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Rather than operating by expectations from their childhood, you might look for the ways they’ve grown, treating them as the adults that they are.

A loving Father

The pandemic has brought much loss and disappointment, but as we long for a better future, let’s not miss the Lord’s calling for our lives in the present. My prayer is that when we look back on this time 10 years from now, we’ll remember it as a time of great sanctification, when the love of Christ was reflected in our love for one another within our homes. And by this love, perhaps those who have yet to know Christ will meet him for the first time.

While not every college student’s experience is the same—some may be struggling with broken relationships, continued separation from family, and loss of family—regardless of our circumstances, followers of Christ can trust that we have an unchanging and loving Father who brings us into an eternal family. It’s this reality that can compel and empower us to love those whom God has placed closest to us.

Grace Liu

Grace Liu serves as Marketing Assistant. She helps manage ERLC and Stand for Life social media accounts and assists with other marketing campaigns and initiatives. Outside of the ERLC, Grace serves as the Projects Manager for the Asian American Christian Collaborative and is currently studying Community Leadership & Development and … Read More