12/19/2011 12:33 pm ET | Updated Feb 18, 2012

They're Back! What to Expect From Your College Freshman's Holiday Return Home

Your college freshmen are coming home for the holidays. For their first, long visit since entering college. Semester breaks that usually range from two weeks to five weeks.

I've counseled many parents who worried about what these long, holiday returns home might bring, their concerns largely fueled by tales of woe from other parents who've been through this maiden voyage home. Tales including... Why they don't feel bound by the rules of your home anymore. No rules for them. No curfews. No chores. No need to let you know where they are, day or night, or whether they're coming home at all on a given night. Not much, if any time to spend with you, their younger siblings and extended family. Forget their sitting down for lengthy family dinners. All their time will be spent either with friends also home from college or consumed by making repeated plans to spend every moment possible with these friends. Parents fear that this winter visit home will be too often punctuated with arguments about the aforementioned areas of dispute. Oh the horror...

The advice I've given to these parents usually begins with...

"Jason's house."

That's how we answered our phone when our college freshman returned for his winter break. Fact was, eight out of ten calls were from his friends, also home from college. Most of Jason's time was spent getting together with friends, making plans to get together with friends, refueling (eating), and sleeping until noon. Whatever daily rhythm we had established in his almost four-month absence abruptly ceased to exist..

College freshmen return home with a new found sense of autonomy and a vampire-like sleep and social schedule. Participation in household chores is not on their top ten list. They are in fact, just visiting. I remember being jolted and saddened during the freshmen breaks of both my returning college kids when I overheard them say they were looking forward to "getting back home", referring to college. I had naively thought home would always, only, mean our home.

Their rhythm-breaking returns notwithstanding, you most probably are, as we were, gladdened and delighted to have them home. Let them hear and feel that joy upon their arrival. Barring an attitude and behavior that shows a blatant disregard for family members, I see no reason not to let them lead the vacation lives they choose.

Ask them what they want to do, whom they plan to see, and what their vacation looks like, as best they currently know it. I believe it's fair to ask them if they will be joining you for meals (forget breakfast!) and social events. You also deserve to know their whereabouts in the evening and when/if they expect to return home. They need to guarantee you a phone call if their plans and return times change significantly. "I know you're a college boy now but humor me, I need to know you're OK."

Respecting their independence does not mean allowing them to unduly upset you or to wholly disregard your feelings and concerns. Our kids are not being willful or intentionally disrespecting us when they leave their dirty clothes and wet towels in a heap on the bathroom floor. Force of habit. They simply need to be calmly reminded that your (their) household's long-standing common courtesies are still in place. Your humor and cutting them a little slack helps immeasurably in their making their first, major college to home transition.

Their first vacation home from college is a marker. Things really have changed and you both know it. Focusing on your happiness in having them home sets the tone for the best reunion possible. When they arrive, ask if they might free up a few times on their schedule to hang out with you. You know, take in a movie, go out for Sunday late morning pancakes. You just might get penciled in. Remind them that their younger siblings and grandma would love it if they could spare a little one on one with them. Make them feel wanted and appreciated.

Enjoy this first holiday return. Remember to be grateful that they wanted to come home. To you. To their family. To love.