5 Things to Know Before Your College Student Comes Home for the Holidays

Whether it happens over fall break, Thanksgiving weekend or winter vacation, your college student will be returning home – a place that is familiar and often a place of refuge where they can let go and just be themselves. Your teen is looking forward to relaxing, sleeping in their own bed, eating non-cafeteria food, and unwinding from the academic and social pressures of college.

New college parents envision a “running toward each other with open arms” welcoming home scenario with their teenager, but the reality of your teen’s visit is often different than expected. Below are a few tips (and a few mistakes that well-meaning parents make) about how to make their visit home as successful as possible.

mom hugging teen
How to make the holiday a happier one with your college teen. (Twenty 20)

How to make your teen’s visit home a big success:

1. DO give yourself permission to feel sad when your teen returns home
Students are eager to return home, but when they are home, they aren’t ‘completely home.’ They may run out the door to reconnect with high school friends and share college stories, they might bicker with siblings making your house not as quiet as it once was, they eat food in the refrigerator, stay up late, etc.

It’s common for your relationship with your child to oscillate between loving, strained, confusing, and humorous until you and your teen settle into a newly defined relationship that works for both of you.

When your teen returns home over breaks, they may question old habits or want independence. They may look different, act different or even speak differently. They are still your child, but they have had a few months of new experiences living away from home and so things may not feel quite the same as when they left home in the summer.

Students want things to have remained the same at home (this familiarity brings them a sense of control) but they also want you to recognize and respect that they are more independent and growing up. This new negotiation requires a balance and sense of humor from parents as you continually define your changing relationship with your college student.

2. DON’T overschedule Day 1 of their return Coming home is viewed by your college student as a vacation, but parents may see this visit as a time to fit in appointments with local specialists such as doctors and dentists, medication management, haircuts, etc. Since time is finite and can’t be changed, you only have so many hours or days at home with your teen.

Appointments need to happen, but maybe they don’t need to happen immediately. I recommend scheduling appointments AFTER giving your teen some time at home to decompress. If they arrive home on Saturday morning at 10am, scheduling an 11AM therapy appointment may make your teen anxious especially if they normally struggle with transitions.

The process of packing bags to come home and then actually getting home (via train or car) can be stressful enough. I’ve found that giving a few hours of decompression time is an effective strategy. Allow your college student to arrive home, eat a meal, unpack and possibly take a nap to ensure the best visit “kick off.”

3. DO spend quality time with your teen just “being with” them “Being with” your teen is a simple and challenging concept to master. When your child first arrives home, you may have lots of questions to ask about their grades, roommate, hygiene, friends, etc. Instead of spending your child’s visit asking a barrage of questions, be sure to plan something special to do just the two of you. It could be a special dinner out or a trip to a local coffee shop.

Maybe it’s taking your son to a movie he’s wanted to see. The bottom line is to build in moments where the only goal is to enjoy them being home. Even if there are topics you want to talk with them about (grades, how much money they are spending, social media posts at all hours of the night), make sure you build in intentional time to celebrate your teen and the great qualities that make him/her the amazing child that you love.

4. DON’T negatively comment on their physical appearance College freedom and college pressures can affect students in different ways. Some students enjoy the freedom of “all you can eat” cafeteria meals or take advantage of Uber Eats and enjoy food being delivered to their dorm room. The ‘Freshman 15’ has a name for a reason and parents may notice the beginnings of this extra 15 pounds when their child returns for holiday break.

Some students have made new friends and connected with new peer groups who may dress differently than their high school friends of the past. You may notice changes in your teen’s clothing, hair color, language, etc. since being away at college. I encourage parents to comment on a noticeable change in your child in neutral or positive ways.

Stating that your teen has blue hair may be received by them more positively than saying “What did you DO to your hair?” Your teen knows that they look differently than they did when they left home on move-in day and they know that you will probably notice the change too.

Rather than ignore the elephant in the room, parents can acknowledge how their child looks in a neutral way (even better if you can react positively) and then move on to spending their visit having fun (or tackling the bag of dirty laundry they brought home).

5. DO tell them if the house looks different/changes were made to their bedroom, etc…….In a recent meeting with a college student, the student shared with me that she was surprised on her first visit home to find that her bedroom had been turned into a home office. Another student recently told me that since being at college, her family moved and downsized to an apartment, thus she will return home during the holidays to an unfamiliar apartment. Even though they may not say this, your child wants to return home to familiarity – seeing you, their siblings, their pets, and their home.

I know that things change and life circumstances sometimes necessitate a new lifestyle (i.e. moving, creating a guest bedroom, birth of a new sibling, renovations, etc.). I recommend telling your child about these changes BEFORE they arrive home, ideally days or weeks in advance. Transitions can be hard and giving your child a preview of changes that they will notice at home can help them prepare.

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Jennifer Sullivan, M.S. has worked in higher education for 16yrs including roles as the Director of New Student Experience and Parent Programming, faculty and academic advisor at Thames at Mitchell College. She is currently an adjunct faculty at several universities including UCONN Avery Point. She is also an educational consultant and life coach specializing in supporting students with disabilities and their families through the transition from high school to college. Jennifer focuses on helping students develop executive functioning and college readiness skills and helping parents find self-care opportunities when their child goes away to college. Learn more about Jennifer on her website.

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