Excited about having your student home for the holidays, but worried about what to expect? You are not alone. College students see holiday breaks as the “do-whatever-I-want” reward for all the sleepless nights, the Red Bull and pizza, and the endless “to do” list that seems to be the norm for the last few weeks of classes and finals. Parents see breaks as the opportunity to bring the family back to “normal” with the usual family outings, dinners, and long, face-to-face conversations.

Conflict can arise from these two different ways to enjoying the holiday time between college semesters, but it doesn’t have to be fraught with unmet expectations and hurt feelings if you are willing to consider the following tips to make the time together as enjoyable as possible:

  • Lower your expectations as to the quality of the interactions. While you may be eager to catch up with your student and spend as much quality time as possible, you may be disappointed that your student is not on the same page as you. They may want to be alone (This is normal) or hang out with their hometown friends (This is also normal). They may also feel overwhelmed with their own expectation to squeeze all of these obligations in a short period of time. You are most likely going to be an item on their list, but not the main event.
    • Tips for Parents: Aim for quality of time spent rather than quantity. Ask your student to choose an activity they want to do with you and schedule it just as you would any other important event.
  • Be clear about expectations for the break, including participation in family gatherings. Most likely your student is excited about being back at home, but they may not be excited about being “required” to be at certain functions. Remember, they have spent the last 4 months making their own schedules and that freedom can be hard to shake. Aunt Martha’s holiday dinner may get ditched for catching up with old friends, and the more you can talk about what you will be okay with and what you need to negotiate, the better the break will be.
    • Tips for Parents: Talk about what events or family gatherings you expect your student to attend and be ready to be flexible. For example, you may be okay with their missing a family dinner, but you have asked them stop by to see their cousins for dessert and board games.
  • Let them sleep and eat on their schedule…at least for some of the break. It may seem as though your student has the best schedule during college–they attend classes only a few hours a day and then have the freedom to complete their work whenever and wherever. The reality, as they see it, is that they have little time to squeeze in all the things they want and need to do. Add to that the changes that are happening to their sleep habits. Roommates can be noisy, residence halls can be bustling with activity at late hours of the night, and there are numerous opportunities to stay up all hours (Hello, 24-hour library?). And food? Well, there is no food like the food from home and a fully-stocked refrigerator that is open all hours of the day and night is like a magnet for college students.
    • Tips for Parents: Be mindful that their sleeping and eating habits may not mesh with the family’s. Outline expectations with your student about sleeping and eating schedules. If you need them to be awake by a certain time or need them to be ready for dinner at a certain time, make that clear early in the visit.
  • Create new holiday and family traditions that take into account their emerging adulthood. If your student always participated in Grandma’s annual photo of grandchildren in their holiday pajamas, they may not be excited to do this as a college student. Be mindful of the changes that come with emerging adulthood and consider creating new traditions or experiences that take into consideration their changing tastes and needs.
    • Tips for Parents: Find ways to develop new traditions or experiences that better suit their changing needs. An 18-year-old may feel uncomfortable at the “kids’ table” for family meals, for example, and may prefer to be a part of the adult preparations for holiday celebrations.

Learning to let go and allow your “child” to occupy that transitional space between late adolescence and early adulthood is hard for parents, but it is a good time for them to figure out who they are and how they want to continue relationships.

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