As we approach the holidays, many college students are headed back home for the first time since summer.
This can create a combination of joyful anticipation and some trepidation for both young adults and their parents.
Without a doubt, the act of a child leaving home shifts the family dynamics, and this can be deeply felt upon a first visit back.
The purpose of this article is to make the journey back a little smoother.
What to Expect When College Students Come Home for the Holidays
1) “Turkey is so gross. I want to make Tofurkey” also known as, “You don’t know me; I’m not the same person I was before.”
The gift of a successful college experience is that students can be exposed to worlds they never knew existed and then try some of these ideas and sensibilities on for size.
Students may come home declaring they are suddenly vegan, rejecting religion or embracing it, changing their political views, doing wild things to their bodies in the form of tattoos and piercings, they may have colored their hair a trendy shade of blue or purple, are newly inhabiting interracial, interfaith, or cross-cultural relationships, perhaps with a newfound desire to study abroad in the country of origin of the dating partner, or they may come out as gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender.
The trick for parents to remember is that some of these attitudes and behaviors stick and some don’t, so it is really not worth getting overly hung up on, attached to, and critical of every preference, style choice, and identity pivot or shift.
Parents would be well served to think back on their children when they were very little to remember how some core qualities, interests and choices have remained intact throughout the years and how some things change.
This same young man may no longer be interested in Pokemon cards and this same young woman likely abandoned Dora the Explorer in favor of staking out her own terrain.
My advice to parents is always: be curious as to who your children are becoming and cut them some slack as they spin around and twirl out new ideas and identities. In the same way parents were likely interested and entertained by their infant’s expressions, their toddler’s new words and gestures, or their school age child’s curiosity about a new idea at school, parents are well-served by bringing this same spirit of curiosity to interactions with their adult children.
Some issues are sure to press hotter buttons in families and carry with them more lasting consequences depending on how they are currently received, such as the announcement of interracial or interfaith dating or coming out as LGBTQ. If parents want an enduring relationship with their adult child, they will likely need to work through any discomfort they have on their own, perhaps with a therapist or in a supportive community.
2) “What happened to my room? Oh, well, whatever, leave me alone, I want to spend the whole weekend seeing my friends anyway.”
Students often return home expecting and wanting everything to be enshrined. They are often shocked or distressed to learn that their bedroom has been transformed into a home office, studio, or gym. But, life must go on when they leave home just as life goes on at college. Still, the push/pull is tremendous, with college students often wanting the sense of a childhood sanctuary with all adult privileges.
At college, students are regularly making decisions on their own, some of which would thoroughly aggravate and upset their parents, but once back at home, students still need the practice of making their own decisions, living with the consequences of them, and advocating for themselves. College students will function better at home when parents respect their adult child’s privacy and refrain from babying.
Of course, one of the biggest challenges to having adult children back at home is the basic issue of day-to-day scheduling and an invocation of daily manners. This is where it is good to sit down face to face and have a real exchange about expectations around things like: time with friends, curfews, sleeping in, work schedules, household chores, car sharing, meals, technology use, and family outings. College students need to remember how their behavior impacts others.
3) “Stop asking me so many questions!”
It’s natural for parents, relatives, and family friends to ask students a barrage of questions about the college experience that may include how much s/he likes the college s/he chose, his or her intended major and/or minor, grades earned so far this term, potential for study abroad, choices related to joining in on Greek life, thoughts of staying on or dropping off of an athletic team, intended plans for summer break and jobs, and even questions about post-graduation.
After awhile this can feel like an inquisition.
During office hours, students often tell me that they worry in advance about how overwhelming this might feel; they share concerns as to how much they will be judged by their parents to the extent that their parents could withhold certain things like tuition or spending money if they decide on a major that is different from what they believe their parents want or earn a B or C instead of an A.
Also, students express fears of being judged, misunderstood, and alienated by their parents for experiencing emotional turmoil. Students whose parents were aware of struggles that they faced in high school such as depression, anxiety, drinking and self harm, are particularly reticent to let their parents know of any ongoing issues and struggles.
Similarly students whose parents were unaware of issues in high school are especially concerned about worrying their parents and tend to be protective of their parents. Other students claim to not want to tell their parents for fear that the parents will not understand them, will force them to get outside help that they don’t want, or prevent them from getting help that they know that they do want and are not sure their parents will support it.
4) “I hate college; I want to transfer/drop out.”
Such thoughts can produce intense reactions from parents and understandably so. A lot of time, energy and money goes into the college decision and the transition to college.
But, it is perfectly normal for students to want to transfer. Over the course of twenty years of teaching, the majority of first year students utter murmurings of wanting to transfer at least at some point.
Often, it is just part of the process of the first year and nothing to be alarmed about. Some students decide that college is not right for them or for their goals and dreams and while this can produce real anguish for many parents, this too, may be a healthy decision so that students put in effort, passion, and energy that approximates or matches the high cost.
5) “Let’s not play Family Feud.”
We are living at a tense and volatile political time and we have experienced chasms in families and friendships. It is reasonable to anticipate that conversations about this may emerge around the dinner table.
Parents may discover that their child has acquired new ways of looking at the world, some of which may stand in stark contrast to ideas that they, as parents, hold dear. We have heard about hate speech and hate crimes emerging on college campuses and in our communities and we have witnessed some school leaders sending letters to students and families about zero tolerance for such oppressive acts.
Just as most parents would oppose bullying behavior in elementary, middle, and high school, it is important to understand that the current bullying behavior is on the same continuum. Rather than judge the school’s stance, it might be helpful to the student to be curious about what is going on on campus in terms of classroom discussions, activities, rallies, and protests and to hear from their perspective how they are experiencing these events.
6) “I can’t wait to get out of here and go back to college.”
If your kid wants to go back to college, this is reason to celebrate!
Remember the anguished junior and senior years of high school, weighing the pros and cons of various colleges and touring different places?
Wanting to get back to college means students chose a place they actually like and can call home and are engaged in crafting a vibrant life for themselves.
This article previously appeared in Psychology Today.
NOTE: When the author of this article, Barbara Greenberg, wrote it, COVID did not exist in our realm of thinking. And thus, it was far from an issue that any parent or student had to deal with when the prospect of coming home for the holidays arose. While the sage advice Barbara offers to families in her article is still very relevant, we felt it was incumbent upon us to add something that had to do with the pandemic as well.
“COVID Sucks! I’m not getting a real college experience.”
The restrictions put in place due to COVID-19 are frustrating for everyone, but students looking to make the most of their college experience in particular are bound to be irritated by the opportunities they’re missing out on. Traditional classroom settings have changed, and they have missed out on events like study abroad programs, seminars, field experience, or other experiences that require close physical contact.
There’s also a social element that they may feel has been erased; club meetings, parties, and dorm room hangouts are constrained and restricted by schools due to necessary safety measures in place.
It’s important to let them rant a little bit; this situation doesn’t have a whole lot of upsides, and acknowledging their feelings is the first step in helping them deal with them. While you don’t want to lecture them, letting them know that you’re frustrated too. This can help build empathy as you both try to find solutions.
While it’s completely understandable that they may be feeling down or upset, it’s good to be proactive when encouraging them to do the things they do enjoy. While they may spend a good deal of their Thanksgiving break studying and working on class projects, there’s also ample room for them to pursue old hobbies and look at the opportunities that are available. Setting some time aside to look at how they can make their next semester is helpful and can give you a reason to spend time together.
Parents will need to recognize that their children are growing up, and that part of being an adult is being aware of what they can and can’t change. It’s better for them to devote their time and energy to the things they can do as opposed to stewing about the things they can.
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