For many, the holiday season is one filled with reconnecting and spending time with family. Yet for first-year college students heading back home -- as well as their parents -- it can also be a time of friction. After three months living on their own on campus, students may be returning home expecting the same freedom they have been experiencing to be replicated at home, and let's face it -- Mom or Dad may have other ideas.
In some cases, there is residual emotion left over from before the student left for campus. I call this the "boomerang" effect -- the harder or more aggressively the student left home, odds are the harder they will hit it upon return. Even common issues like curfews, household chores and other areas that the student may consider no longer relevant may still be a focus for a parent, and without giving some advance thought before the homecoming, there is a chance that the Winter Break period may find parent and student at odds rather than gathering together at the holiday table.
As a student affairs professional for nearly 30 years -- and also as a parent of a college student -- I've found that keeping a few critical tips in mind over the coming weeks can help to ease the student's transition home and make for a more celebratory experience as a family:
Think about what the rules should be related to curfews, free time, household chores and other responsibilities -- and discuss them in advance: Most young people get their first true taste of independence when they go away to college, and some are reluctant to give that up when they come home. While things such as curfews may need to be upheld, parents must keep in mind that their sons and daughters have moved to a new stage in their lives, one that requires acknowledgment and flexibility. The best way to approach these touchy areas is to anticipate and address them early and directly, rather than simply assuming that the structure that was in place still exists (as a parent may do), or that it is no longer relevant (which may be the student perspective). Set up a time to talk by phone to come to a decision that is fair and comfortable for both parties.
Know how to make connections in conversations: College is a special moment in time and an experience many people cherish for the rest of their lives. Students may come back home wanting to share what they have been learning or doing. However, Dad may not be up on his Victorian poetry, or Mom may never have heard of ultimate Frisbee. Parents may find that one good approach is to peruse the college's website in advance to learn about what issues or events have been happening on campus and then use those learnings to start a conversation with the student. It is important to recognize the differences that exist on both sides and to use them as opportunities to share, connect and become closer.
Prepare yourself for other significant changes: Parents may joke about turning a child's bedroom into a yoga studio or office when he or she goes away to school, but in some cases, it actually happens -- a key source of family friction. On a more serious note, students may return home to find that a favorite pet or a neighbor has passed away. In both cases, communication is key.
Understand that family and friend relationships change: Undergraduates themselves are not the only ones getting used to their new independence. Parents and siblings also have adjustments -- often difficult ones -- to make. Old friendships forged from grade school may now lack common ground, especially with friends who did not go to college or who chose a different type of school.
College is no doubt a time for growth and for exploring new ideas, and this is true for the parents as well as the student. By being mindful of these kinds of potential trouble spots and dealing with them in advance, families can head into the holidays respecting each others' growth and independence and acknowledging how these can make the family stronger as a whole.
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