Home for the holidays: Bliss or bust?

college student and parent embracing

Dec. 8, 2015

SLIPPERY ROCK, Pa. - Being back home for the holidays can seem like a breath of fresh air for both college students and their parents.

For students, thoughts of mom's meatloaf and being curled up in their own bed can make for warm and fuzzy moments following the stress of final exams.

And - despite the accompanying anxiety or anger - seeing dirty clothes thrown in every corner or toothpaste smeared on the bathroom counter probably makes most parents feel as though things are back to normal.

But what can parents and students expect "normal" to feel like after a student has started college?

For students, heading home for holiday breaks after being in college can present unexpected challenges. Where students may have had structure, a curfew and family responsibilities before they left for school, they most likely pushed those aside once they arrived on campus.

Re-establishing the parent/child dynamic on the homefront begins with communication, said Joseph Van Hannak, counselor at Slippery Rock University's Counseling Center. To help avoid potential conflicts, parents may benefit from communicating boundaries before break ever begins.

"(We tell parents) 'talk to your kids,'" said Van Hannak. "It's a case of parents saying, 'This is what I have to have if you're coming home to stay with me,' and students saying, 'This is what I have to have if I'm going to stay with you.'

According to Kayla Hedman of Champlain College News, making an agenda can make this a little less chaotic.

"Parents should check with children before they return home and find out what plans he/she may have already made," said Hedman. "Parents should let students know about any family commitments on the calendar, but understand that the student need time to catch up with old friends too."

Van Hannak said research shows adolescent brains may still be developing until age 26. This means parenting choices may still be very impactful and helpful. Students may also feel more secure in knowing that their parents are still parenting at times.

In fact, family therapist Carleton Kendrick says that its fair for parents to not only ask about their students whereabouts while home on break, but also know that it is okay to gently remind their adult child that the household's longstanding courtesies are still in place.

"I think some of the students enjoy going home and saying, 'Finally - someone else is in charge,' while others need to feel respected and autonomous," Van Hannak added.

For parents, it can be hard to recognize that a child has become a young adult. Especially when a student's personal freedom and blossoming independence manifest itself in not waking up until noon, eating cereal for dinner and being out all night--without having to say where--until 4 or 5 a.m.

For students, college is about the transition from childhood to adulthood - from being under a parent's roof and protection, to living on their own and having the final say. The transition isn't student exclusive - parents must go through the same process.

"You want to raise them to be independent," said Van Hannak. "You want them to be successful, but that doesn't eliminate the feeling that that (young adult) is your little baby ... someone you put into the world.

"Parents need to remember that their students are trying to figure out their identity, figure out where they stand and what they're able to do."

According to The Huffington Post's Linda Wolff, there is a delicate balance for parents in enforcing rules and not being the ultimate "buzz kill."

"You don't want to scare them off, so he/she won't want to come home next time," said Wolff. The goal, Wolff continued, is that both parties enjoy the visit and look forward to the next.

Keeping expectations in check is something both parents and students need to engage in according to Hedman.

"Parents imagine many conversations with their students about how classes are going and about new friends," said Hedman, "But the students are also expected to still fulfill family traditions from their childhood."

The students, meanwhile, Hedman said, are expecting lots of home cooked meals and that giant sack of dirty laundry to magically become clean again.

"In the end, students and parents need to be fully prepared for the new family dynamic that is sure to ensue," Hedman added, "while also understanding that despite some uneasiness on both parts, it can be a new and exciting time for all."

Dirty clothes and toothpaste smears aside.