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College Parents: Managing The Long Holiday Break

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In three weeks it will be Thanksgiving. Summer is long gone and here come the Special Days: Halloween (already past), Thanksgiving (coming soon), Christmas (and other religious events), and New Year's Day. It seems as though this time of year is a blurred series of multiple event preps, celebrations and decompressions. Many families, especially those that include college students, add the extra component of anticipation to the mix.


When it approaches this time of year -- that stretch leading up to Thanksgiving and flowing into the New Year -- college parents start to anticipate the return of their collegiate progeny -- for better or worse. I say "worse" because the arrival of young people who have just been on their own for the better part of three months (and probably up all night on more than one occasion) can bring an element of disruption to an otherwise calm, orderly household. I know what I'm talking about, having had two collegians in our family.

If you are the parent of a first-year college student, this initial, extended holiday "visit" can prove to be especially interesting, if not downright stressful. Why is that?

Well, for starters, your son or daughter has been completely on his or her own since you dropped them off that first memorable day. Of course, this assumes that they are residential students at a college far enough away so that they haven't been home for their first visit yet. As parents, we can only imagine the kinds of lifestyles they've been maintaining in the dorms. Granted, maybe we don't want to imagine, or even know about that. I didn't.

From Freedom to Rules

Your child will be returning from an extended period of relatively total freedom back into the strictures of Mom and Dad's place. That can result in a conflict of sorts, perhaps more like the collision of warm and cold fronts on the weather radar. Sometimes storms can develop.

In thinking back to those times when my collegians came home for the Thanksgiving-Christmas-New Year's period, I became curious about what experts might have to say to parents, especially those inexperienced with this phenomenon. So, I did some research and found an instructive article by Ruth A. Peters, PhD. When college kids come home for the holidays advises parents to try to put aside many of their previous high-school-era rules and regulations and view their children as adults.

Let's see how easy that might be. Here are some of Peters' insights:

First, she sets the scene with some preliminary expectations for both sides:

So, how do you have a comfortable holiday experience with this "new" young adult who's visiting for the next few weeks? Start by considering your goals for the time spent together. My guess is that, as parents, you would like to:

- See the kid as much as possible

- Have meals together

- Hear all about the grades, professors and studying that is occurring

- Get to know your child's new friends and significant others by either meeting them or hearing stories told

- Have fun, family style

- Engage in religious activities together

These don't sound too unreasonable, do they? From a parental perspective, they sound logical and something to look forward to with anticipation.

However, try to take a look through the other (your child's) end of the telescope. What are their expectations for their time at home? Peters illuminates us:

- Visit with their buddies from high school

- Spend as much time outside the home engaging in activities they remember from earlier years

- If they are bringing home a college friend or girlfriend, boyfriend — expose them to their previous activities and chums

- Eat, get presents, and eat some more

- Have some family fun

- Engage in religious activities together

Quite a different view, indeed.

So much for expectations, but how about those dreaded "rules and restrictions" that we parents love to cite? What might some of those be?

- Follow a curfew, but perhaps a bit later than during high school

- Not use alcohol or other substances in or outside of the home

- Fraternize "appropriately" with the opposite sex

- Check in at night by phone so that they won't worry

- Keep the bedroom reasonably tidy (after all, it's probably been spit-shined during the child's absence)

- Wake up at a reasonable hour in the morning to engage in activities

- Perhaps get a part-time job over the holidays to bring in some extra cash

These sound just like the rules and restrictions my wife and I had for our kids when they came home for the holidays.

But (and it's a big but), let's crawl inside a college student's head and see what Peters sees them thinking about their time home for the holidays:

- No curfew, I can come and go as I please, just as I have been doing for the past three or four months

- Continue to use or not use substances (alcohol, marijuana) as occurred at school

- Have members of the opposite sex to the home, perhaps entertaining them alone in the bedroom with the door closed (some even expect to be allowed to have their friend sleep in the same bedroom)

- Not call home during the evening as to their activities and whereabouts

- SLEEP IN

- Skip the job search — after all, "this is my vacation!"

Major disconnect! What's a first-year college-student parent to do?

I'm going to leave you in suspense. You'll have to check the rest of Peters' advice. However, I will leave you with her parting words, to motivate you to delve deeper into her sage article:

So folks, even though it may be difficult to do so, try to put aside many of the previous high school rules and regulations and view your adult children as just that — adults trying to make their own decisions (and pay the consequences, good and bad) and live their own lives. Be there for them if they request your guidance, stand firm on your few but important house rules (especially if younger siblings are watching every movement and request), and, most of all — enjoy the holidays! It will be several months until spring break, and just think: They'll be even more independent by then.

Spring break?! Don't get me started! I'll be back with thoughts about that in time to help you with your parental decisions about that. In the meantime, I wish you all well with turkey, holiday gifts and the swiftly-approaching New Year 2020.