Campus Life

Freshman Holiday Homecomings

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Attention moms and dads of first-year college students … Are you ready for the return of your freshman sons and daughters for the coming holidays?

You may think that you’re ready, but allow me -- an experienced parent of two college students from years ago -- to brief you on how to deal with and survive this year-end “reunion.” There may be some surprises ahead for you.


Depending on the academic schedule of your child’s college, s/he may be returning for a brief Thanksgiving break and then going back to school for a couple weeks of term or semester exams. Others may be getting a much longer break that extends from just before Thanksgiving until after the new year. It’s these longer breaks that can be challenging.

This goes back to my old theory regarding anticipation versus the “moment of truth.” Our family’s first collegian was our daughter. She went away to a small liberal arts school in early September and we saw her again only briefly during a parents-day visit on campus not long after she began classes. Then there was that long stretch between September and Thanksgiving when phone calls ruled.

She was quite homesick her first semester and my wife had the blues because our first-born had flown the nest. So, we (especially my wife) looked forward with great anticipation to her homecoming for the Thanksgiving- through-year-end break, a month or so that turned out to be a definite moment-of-truth experience for us.

When it starts to approach this time of year -- the weeks leading up to Thanksgiving and flowing into the New Year -- parents of college students start to look forward to 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. As I mentioned, I speak from experience.

Why Can This Happen? 

Well, for starters, your son or daughter has been completely independent since you dropped him or her 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 know.

Anyway, your child will be returning from an extended period of relative total freedom, back into the strictures of mom and dad’s place. This can result in a conflict of sorts, perhaps more like the merging 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 holidays, especially during 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. Since this is an annual rite of passage for parents of first-year college students, I searched my files for the best advice I’ve kept on-hand about that, my go-to article when parents of my counseling clients contact me with their concerns.

It’s an evergreen, highly instructive article on Today.com 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 (or hard) that might be. Here are some of Dr. Peters’ insights. First, she sets the scene with some preliminary expectations from 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 like something to look forward to (remember my theory of “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. They want to:

- 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 from that perspective, eh? 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.

Geez, these sound just like the rules and restrictions my wife and I had for our kids when they were home for the holidays. But (and it’s a big but), let’s crawl inside a college student’s head and see what they’re 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!”

CLANK! Major disconnect!

What’s The Parent of A First-Year College Student to Do?

Well, 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! Yikes! Why do we parents have to face spring break so soon after holiday break? Just when we thought we had reached a negotiated settlement about home-for-the-holidays happiness, we’re faced with questions about where our kids will be for that legendary display of hedonism parading under the euphemistic guise of “spring break.”

Where will they go? What will they be doing? How will we pay for this? Will they be safe?

Yes, college life can present an ongoing litany of challenges for moms and dads. But, take my word for it -- 99 percent of the time, things work out. Years after graduation, you will probably look back across the trying times and realize that they probably weren’t as bad as they seemed. At least that was our experience. I hope it will be yours, too.

So, get that turkey … and get ready. There’s a college student heading your way!