Enjoying the holidays with your returned college student

Looking forward to welcoming your child home for the holidays? Here's how to help it all go smoothly.
By Anne Vaccaro BradyPublished on 11/16/2018 at 10:00 AM EDT
Illustration by Britton Korbel

First things first. That Hallmark movie running through your mind lately. You know the one I’m talking about. Where your college student bounds through the door, pulls you into a huge hug and then spends every waking moment of their break with you and the family eating your freshly-baked cookies, binge-watching that Netflix series you’ve been keeping in your queue until they came home and sharing all that good news about their life at college. Yeah, that one. Turn it off! Now! If you get these unrealistic expectations out of your head before your freshman arrives, you can have a great holiday season with them. 

The key to a good holiday break is communication. I cooked enough dinners when my kids were home from college only to find out as they were heading out the door that, sorry mom, they were going out to eat with their friends. If I had just asked what their plans were in advance, or requested they be home on specific nights for a family meal, I would’ve saved myself a lot of frustration. 

 As for that walking out the door, make sure you catch them before they slam it shut, because it’s not natural for them to tell anyone where they’re going anymore. You’ll need at least a quick sit down with your teen to talk about new ground rules. Realize that this isn’t the same person who left home three months ago. College kids don’t live with curfews. They do crash in other people’s dorm rooms and sleep until at least noon on the weekends. More than a few drink alcohol or smoke weed, some on a regular basis. Discuss how much of this college lifestyle you’re comfortable with your student bringing home. 

The key to a good holiday break is communication.

There are no set rules that work for every family, so you’ll have to figure out what makes the most sense for yours. Take advantage of your friend network to find out what other parents have worked out, especially those who have older college kids. 

After too many sleepless nights, a friend of mine made an agreement with her college-age daughters that they’d text her at her bedtime to let her know they were safe and expected to be home by their new curfew. It worked most nights, she said. 

Your teen wants to be out later in order to spend as much time as possible with their friends. Accept that you’ll be sharing your college student. Talk early about this. Make an agreed upon plan. Like that over Thanksgiving break they’ll be around for at least one scheduled event: a dinner, or a movie or game night. This will mean a lot to the younger sibling(s). Over the longer winter break, pick a specific night(s) of the week your teen needs to reserve for family. 

When it comes to the holidays themselves, prepare for changes here, too. Does your teen have to do more than show up? If you’re hosting, how much help will you need? Some kids are more than happy to step up the way they always did, while others want to sleep as late as possible before their presence is required. Some teens want to keep all the traditions and others will question why your family has so many. This might be the time you find out that your college kid doesn’t attend religious services anymore, or has started to go. Again, talk it through. 

Anticipate that you will learn some things you didn’t want to know or weren’t prepared for, usually at an inopportune time. Another friend shared that when she and her husband casually asked her stepdaughter how freshman year was going as they opened their Christmas presents, the girl broke into tears and said she hated it and wanted to transfer to a local college like a couple of her friends. Stunned and speechless at first, my friend and the girl’s parents spent the rest of the break explaining why it was important to go back and finish out freshman year. During a phone call mid-January, my friend sheepishly asked how she was doing, and her stepdaughter said everything was great now! 

Most college students receive their first semester/quarter grades over the winter break—online. Ask to see those and use the opportunity to assess how well they’re balancing academics, a social life and their new independence. Generally, be a good listener, but offer advice to help solve obvious problems that can make the second semester better than the first. 

There is no set formula for having a good holiday break with your college student, but mutual respect and communication go a long way. Recognize that your teen is technically an adult now, but don’t surrender your role as the parent, you’re still in charge. Talking and listening to each other with open minds makes a big difference. Do it right and you might all be a little sad when they head back to campus. 

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