What I Wish I Had Known Before That First College Winter Break

When your kids have been on their own at college for several months, having them home for a long time is so exciting for parents. Maybe we imagine family dinners, watching movies together, and things feeling “normal” again — at least for a little while.

Thanksgiving break doesn’t always prepare us for a whole month of our kid at home after they’ve been so independent at school. When my first son was coming home, he asked if he could have an “Ugly Sweater” party that first weekend before Christmas. I was THRILLED.  He trusts us so much! He’s so creative with this idea!  His friends have matured — they want a real Christmas party — so civilized! This “little” gathering will be lovely.  I’ll make pigs in a blanket! 

family at Christmas
Winter Break may not be exactly like you imagine with your college kids at home.

I COULD NOT HAVE BEEN MORE WRONG. The sweaters barely mattered, but Beer Pong season was in full tilt. Before we knew it, we were inundated with tons of kids clad in ugly sweaters, ready to party. We didn’t want to disappoint our son, we wanted him to see his friends, and we thought we had reached a new level of parent/kid socializing. 

Once we realized the party was headed in the wrong direction, we pulled the plug. Hundreds of dollars later in rug cleaning, we all agreed that things hadn’t gone exactly as we hoped. The hardest part of holiday breaks is letting go of expectations. These kids have been calling their own shots on a daily basis for months now.

Things may be different than what parents imagine they will be

First, they can sleep FOREVER, and if you have younger ones ready to open gifts, you have to set off a canon in their room to get them up and to move. The bleary-eyed monosyllabic kid in front of you might not be recognizable. 

Then they grab a cup of coffee and you’re even more shocked. Coffee? He never drank coffee before! Why does he drink coffee now? Is he so hungover at school all the time that he now chugs coffee? Does he sleep through his classes? Is that a BEER belly I’m seeing poking out from those flannel pajama pants? 

They prioritize their friends

Then there is the inevitable prioritizing of friends before folks. How could I forget that?  OF COURSE, he wants to be with his high school friends as much as he can.

Probably the most challenging thing is getting the stories of their new life that you so want to hear. My daughter comes home and typically holds forth at the dinner table with EVERY detail of her daily existence. She cuddles with us on the couch. In fact, her first year, she would call me or her dad just to chat while she walked to class.  

My sons are clearly in the CIA, just posing as students. Everything is strictly need to know, and obviously, I don’t have the proper security clearance.  

Any romances? I dare to ask. “Mom, seriously?”  

Are they eating right? “Mom, honestly. It’s fine.”  

Have they made any new friends? What are their names? Would you like to invite them down over break for a visit? “Mom, chill.”  

Okay, then just tell me their names. “DJ, Mike and Drew.” 

Oooh, where do they live? “Jersey.” All of them? “I dunno. Mostly.”  

“Mom, can I just go upstairs for a while and get settled, then we can talk.” Oh, sure, honey.  I’m sorry. Just excited to have you home — awkward hug. Then I hear him on Xbox, animated, laughing, hooting, and hollering. 

Those big talks never really happened, but I eventually got the hang of it.

Remembering how I felt at their age helped me let my teens go

I came to realize that it’s all part of the letting go process and what kept me going was remembering how I felt at their ages.

Back then, I felt out of sorts straddling my two new worlds, and I realized my kids felt that. 

  • I felt “confined” when I got home on breaks because I wasn’t used to checking in with anyone or having a set dinner time.
  • I missed my college routine and my friends there.
  • It was weird being with my home friends again, because things were definitely different between us.
  • I felt guilty that I wasn’t dying to spend time with my parents and siblings.
  • I felt selfish but stuck, like I couldn’t deliver my parents’ expectations.

So as with all things in life, acceptance is critical. Summer breaks give us more time to blend back to the family we knew; it is so long that I will have time to get annoyed with them again.

Whether or not they show it, they are happy to be home

In the meantime, just know whether they show it or not, they are REALLY happy to be home. They can take a breath, the academic pressure is off for a few weeks, and they can just be who they are without worrying about roommates and deadlines. Home is their safe place, and it’s the very fact that they know you love them no matter what that leads them to take you for granted.   

Every year, you will see that they appreciate you more. Every break, they showed me more empathy, maturity and genuine thanks for the little things they once took for granted.  What was that phrase back when I was a teen — if you love something, let it go. 

If it comes back to you, it’s yours? With the last of three finishing their junior year, I can tell they are mine, and always will be.

More Great Reading:

6 Things All Parents Need to Know About Winter Break

About Virginia Horan

Virginia Horan is an academic chair and professor of communication studies who earned the SUNY Chancellor's Award for Excellence in Teaching in 2012.  A passionate advocate for students, she began to research why Gen Z students were struggling with the transition to college.  Based on her research, she decided to teach her student's how to use a paper planner and take better notes by hand. 

The students said the planner was "life changing," so she set out to create an academic planner that tapped into visual and tactile learning while also addressing the high rates of anxiety among this generation of students. The result is the Centered Student Planner, and in addition to the layout, weekly college success tips and positive psychology prompts, also provides exclusive access to over 50 video tutorials that offer academic and emotional support to students throughout the year.

Read more posts by Virginia

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