It was only four months ago that I was nearly inconsolable after saying goodbye to my college daughter. However, as much as I have missed my daughter’s presence in our home, her five-week college winter break gave me a major dose of reality. I understand now that when most children reach 18 years old, it is time for them to fly the coop.
I loved having my daughter home, and yet there were some tense moments which made me realize that an inevitable shift that had occurred—a shift for her, for me and for the rest of our family. My husband, three other children and I had adjusted to a more even and predictable barometric pressure in our house. And thankfully, my daughter has adapted easily and happily to the non-stop hustle and bustle of dorm and college life. She is thrilled to be in charge of what she does, whom she is with and the choices she makes without an “all-knowing parent” watching over her shoulder.
She is managing her newfound freedom well, and is doing a great job with self-monitoring, and balancing her academic and social life, which is what all parents hope for. But when your adult child comes home with her newly developed sense of independence, she more than likely will have expectations that she will be able to exercise the same, or similar freedoms she has at school.
There is, however, is a slight problem with this scenario.
It doesn’t work.
Boundaries, limits, rules and curfews must be set despite the likely resistance that will ensue. “You don’t know what time I get back to my dorm room when I am at school,” my daughter reminded me. “You don’t know where I am and who I am with every minute of the day or night and I manage myself just fine!” She closed with every teenager’s favorite question, “Why can’t you just TRUST ME?!”
The issue is not about trust. It is about children respecting their parents, and parents not allowing their college kids to hold them hostage and worry them sick as their kids assert their incessant desire for autonomy. In order for parents to maintain their sanity and a sense of order in their homes, parents need to insist that their children (including adult children who now spend the majority of their time away at college) respect the house rules, even if they don’t like them.
“The child you dropped off at her freshman dorm is not the same child who comes home for winter break,” says Mary Dell Harrington, co-author of the popular Grown and Flown blog. “Your kid has changed,” she says, so it’s understandable that “the high school rules you once established no longer fit.”
Mary Dell says parents would be especially wise to prepare for friction on “the big three areas of conflict” — drinking, curfew and boyfriends/girlfriends. And she suggests establishing proposed boundaries in these areas well in advance of your adult child’s first night back at home.
“This won’t eliminate the inevitable conflict,” she notes, “but it might minimize the drama.”
With that in mind, here are a few additional suggestions for keeping the peace during this upcoming winter break:
1. Develop some ground rules regarding the car, curfew, checking in and household responsibilities. These rules may be slightly different than the ones you had established before your child went off to college.
2. Share your rules with your college student when she gets home (or before) and allow for some discussion (which may include complete annoyance and defensiveness on their part).
3. Be clear with your child that you want her to feel at home when she is home, but boundaries need to be respected so that the whole family can feel comfortable and peaceful as well. Your home is not a dorm, sorority or frat house.
4. Remember to prioritize your self-care during this sometimes stressful transitional time that can be overly focused on making your college student happy at home:
- Take time for yourself to exercise (aka, blow off some steam).
- Talk with friends who can help you process this new stage of life.
- Carve out time for you and your partner to connect and make sure you are both on the same page regarding rules and expectations for your child.
- Be kind to and patient with yourself, reminding yourself that it is not easy to manage the challenges that arise and to feel that you always have the “right” answers, but tell yourself that you are doing the best you can.
Despite the fact I didn’t have all that great advice at the ready for my college daughter’s holiday break, we managed okay. But by the end of it, even though it was hard to say goodbye, I think we were all ready for her to head back to school.
A few days after she returned to her dorm, she called to say, “I’m so happy to be back here, mom.” I could tell by her tone that she wasn’t sassily implying, “I am better off without you.” Rather, I heard her stating that she is right where she is supposed to be—living away from home, enjoying college life and forging her own path.
And I am truly happy for her, and for our newly developing relationship.