You’ve been dreaming of this moment since you dropped them off in August—the sweet reunion of your baby returning home from college for the holidays. But before your vision of a fairy tale homecoming is shattered by disappointment, here are eight common things to expect, as well as how to make the most of your time together.
8 Things To Expect When Your College Kid Returns Home For the Holidays
1. They’ll annihilate your laundry room.
Prepare for them to come home with an obscene amount of dirty laundry in tow. And after a semester of doing this chore themselves (or avoiding it and saving it all for break), they’ll expect the laundry fairy (you) to wash, dry, and fold everything for them. Promptly, of course.
Solution: Get all of your household laundry done in advance, because you probably won’t have a chance while they’re home. And consider sweetly obliging their laundry needs instead of picking a fight. It’s a small thing you can do to say, “I love you and will take care of you even though you’re a stinky pig.”
2. They’ll want to spend time with friends
Remember the old Folgers Coffee commercial with the older brother arriving home from college and his family waking up and running joyfully into his arms? They should make a realistic sequel to it where he then dashes off to visit his friends all day after having a quick cup of coffee with his family. Because that’s usually what happens. “Buh-Bye, Peeeeter!”
Solution: Plan “family only” times throughout the break and communicate this schedule and expectation for attendance to everyone in advance. This ensures that siblings and parents (and extended family, if applicable) will be together without hurt feelings when someone’s MIA.
If you’re divorced, consider how to fairly plan for kids’ time to visit both parents without making them have to choose. And be understanding of their need to reconnect with friends they’ve been missing—those relationships are important, too. If you want to see more of them during break, consider opening your home for a gathering of their friends. (But also see #2.)
3. They might test rules you’ll want to stand your ground on.
My daughter and her friends weren’t “party-ers” in high school, so I was shocked when we opened our home during break to a large group of them and they showed up with alcohol brazenly in tow. YIKES! We hadn’t realized that our standard rule of not aiding and abetting underage drinking was now null and void.
Based on personal beliefs, legality, safety, liability, and not wanting my home to resemble a fraternity house (especially with high school-age siblings at home), we had to embark on the awkward enforcement of our house rule with a whole audience of beer-in-hand college kids. It wasn’t fun.
Solution: Every home has different rules and standards; gently but firmly communicate your non-negotiables to your college kid before they’re broken. Whatever your family’s personal choices are—whether it’s about alcohol, friends of opposite gender hanging out for “all night-ers,” etc.—be prepared to exercise judgement and gut-instinct, and maintain your role as parent and head of the household.
We learned that even more than alcohol, college kids LOVE food and truly appreciate yummy things prepared just for them. Creating a festive, welcoming atmosphere without alcohol is easy to do with home-cooking and an excess of cheese, sugar, and carbs.
4. They’ll sleep. A lot.
College kids are coming home after a stressful time of projects, papers, and finals, and they’re exhausted and burnt out. Sleeping in their own bed without having to study and go to class is a true luxury they’ve been craving.
5. Curfew is a foreign concept.
One of the biggest freedoms college students are used to is owning their own schedule without answering to anyone. If you’re expecting them to return from an evening out promptly within their old high school curfew window, prepare for a long night of waiting and wondering.
Solution: Have a conversation about this BEFORE they come home and vanish into the night. Consider this an opportunity to recognize their new independence as a young adult, and ask for their input on a new household expectation for coming and going that’s based on mutual respect and communication.
You might agree to “no curfew,” but they have to agree to let you know where they are and when they expect to come home. (Including if they’ve decided to stay overnight somewhere.) Surrender your parental impulse to watch the clock and worry; just pray for their safety and don’t wait up.
6. They’ll surprise you with glimpses of their future adult self.
When I dropped off my son for freshman year of college I kissed my baby-faced boy on his clean-shaven cheek and was aghast when he showed up for Thanksgiving as a shaggy-haired fully bearded man. He looked so different—so grown up—and he even spoke in full sentences and seemed genuinely interested in chatting with his parents. And then when he voluntarily emptied the dishwasher and wiped down the kitchen counters with antibacterial spray I was almost certain this was NOT my kid.
Solution: Soak in the satisfaction of seeing the progress of maturity, acknowledge their”adulting” with affirmation, but don’t expect complete transformation just yet. There’s nothing like a long, pleasant conversation devoid of grunts and eyerolls that makes a parent realize that this new season of engaging with one’s young adult child is much more delightful than in the teenage years.
But just when you think it’s time to high-five yourself on completing the goal of raising a responsible, competent grown up they’ll reveal the true state of their still-developing capacity for adulting by making an asinine mistake, a short-sighted poor decision, or suddenly seem to revert back to teen-like self-centeredness. Don’t fret, just roll with it and remember that adulting is a two steps forward, one step backward process.
7. They’ll raid your home for every scrap of food before they depart.
Like vultures scoping out prey, they’ve assessed your pantry of dry goods and will abscond with your entire stock of mac-n-cheese, cookies, crackers, peanut butter, and anything else that meets their fancy. My daughter even took a box of rice back to her dorm and she didn’t even own a pot to cook it in.
Solution: Lock it up or let it go in peace. It’s a personal choice—you can decide what is appropriate for them to have, or offer to take them grocery shopping with a budget, or just plan on restocking everything once they’re gone.
8. At the end of break it’ll become obvious that they’re ready to leave.
As much as our college kids look forward to coming home, it’ll become evident as the time wears on (especially over winter break) that they’re getting antsy to return to college and reclaim their independence. And you’ll likely be ready for them to go, too, although it’s bittersweet.
Solution: Let them go. For parents, this is “phase 2” of college drop-off day. It’s not as dramatic, but sometimes the heartache is even harder as you realize your baby is truly growing up and ready to fly the coop. Love them, savor them, and dote on them while they’re home, and send them back with confidence knowing you’re raising a young adult with their own life ahead of them. It’s the new rhythm of this season of parenthood (and you’ll have a new appreciation for a clean laundry room!).
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Now, the Grown and Flown book is here!
Kami Gilmour is the author of a devotional book for parents of college students, Release My Grip, and mom of five teen and young adult kids (releasing her grip on her son at college drop-off day in the photo.)