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Holiday Suggestions for Parents of College Students

Parents look forward to having their college student home for Thanksgiving vacation or for the long December break, but the reality of holiday reunions frequently fails to match expectations. It is not easy to slip back into traditional family patterns when students have been gone for a few months. Parents might consider some of the following suggestions to make the transition less stressful for the whole family.

Thanksgiving Break

Parents and students each have their own expectations about how the four-day weekend will go—but those expectations rarely are the same. Parents should talk to their student before Thanksgiving break to find out what plans she may have made with friends and let her know what family obligations will require her presence. It is important to keep in mind that she will need some time with high school friends.

Parents can ask, before the student comes home, if there are any changes or new developments they might need to know. When the Thanksgiving turkey is being carved is not the time parents want to hear that their child is now vegan and won't eat anything with meat, dairy, or eggs. Family members will also want to know in advance if there are any new body piercings, unusual hair styling, or tattoos. And if parents have made any dramatic changes, they should tell their student in advance.

Those who are driving to campus to pick up their student for Thanksgiving weekend will want to include some extra time in the schedule and some extra patience into their outlook. Students may not be completely packed when parents arrive. They may want to dash down the hall to say goodbye to friends. They may still be debating which books and notebooks to bring with them, while the family is anxious to get on the road. They might have far more luggage and laundry than seems possible for a four-day weekend. Parents may have expectations of a pleasant conversation all the way home, while the student probably will be ready for a long nap. Parents who have packed a pillow and blanket into the car will make points with their student.

Students who have been on campus for three months with no car may seem more excited to see the family car than the family itself. The car symbolized freedom and maturity when students turned 16, and it still means those qualities to a 19 year old. When a student jumps into the car and takes off, he is not rejecting the family; he is just anxious to get back some of that freedom.

Families often argue about curfews during college break periods. Students will protest that they have not had a curfew at school and have been staying out well past the curfew they used to have. Some parents find it easiest to require that the car be home by a certain time without specifying the student must be home by then. Or they will ask their student to indicate when he expects to be home, with a request that he call if he will not be home by that time.

Students think they will catch up on their studying over Thanksgiving, but often the temptations of social gatherings, sleeping in, or watching TV and videos take precedence. By Sunday morning, students realize they haven't done as much homework as they thought they would. They may be sullen or preoccupied. They may suddenly demand to get back to campus early. This is not a rejection of family!

In some cases, students will not want to return to college after the break. They may not have fully adjusted to college life yet, or they may have had a bad experience right before the break. Encourage your child to remain in school for at least one semester or at least one full year, depending on how serious you think the dissatisfaction is. Dropping out at this point means the student will lose an entire semester of credits and tuition. In many cases, the weeks between Thanksgiving and the end of the semester improve a student's outlook on school, and for the majority of students, campus begins to truly feel like home in late January or February.


Winter Break

Student walking at night in winter.

Many of the Thanksgiving suggestions are valid for the long break over the December holidays, but there are some differences. First, the winter break is much longer than Thanksgiving. Students can't imagine being without their electronics for the three or more weeks of the break, and they will want to bring home their computer, all the peripherals and chargers, TV, and other entertainment equipment. Packing up the car might take more time and luggage space than parents anticipated, and tempers may be short.

The first few days of break, parents worry because their student is sleeping so much. He or she is recovering from final exams, but students also use sleep as a way to gradually fit back into home routines. They will wander into the kitchen, have something to eat, and then be at a loss as to how to relate to the family. A nap provides an escape and a chance to think about what to do next.

Students come home from school thinking they will be treated as a guest, but parents want their child to fit back into the family. Parents often are solicitous the first day or two, making their child's favorite foods and doing special things for him or her. Conflicts arise when parents ask their child to assume his or her regular family chores—doing dishes, shoveling snow, or running errands. Parents and students should discuss expectations about household chores and family obligations early in the break.

After a couple of weeks, students start to feel bored by being home. To some extent for freshmen, but especially for upperclassmen, the old friends from high school may begin to lose their appeal over the holiday break. Students realize that they are now living in a very different culture than their friends who stayed home or who are going to another college. They realize they have more in common with college friends, and this can bring on feelings of loneliness and separation.

Parents can help by scheduling more family events at the end of the break instead of all at the beginning. A day of skiing or a weekend at Grandma's will be better appreciated in mid-January than between Christmas and New Year's. Family members can also ask their student not to buy holiday gifts but instead to set aside time in Januaryfor a family event—ask him or her to take parents out for dinner some evening or take a sibling bowling or to the movies.

Students walking in fall rain.

Holiday Suggestions for College Students

University Counseling & Consulting Services
University of Minnesota
340 Appleby Hall

The holidays can represent a much needed break from classes, indulgence in home-cooked food; and at times STRESS! Your expectations for the holiday break may differ significantly from your parents’. When a student leaves for college, the family dynamics often change. Adjusting to these changes can be challenging for students and their family. Here are some tips for coping when going home:

  • Let your family know about your plans before you arrive home. Your parents will have an idea of what you would like to do and are less likely to plan all of your time for you. If you will be splitting time with various family members, establish your plans ahead of time and inform everyone.
  • Understand that you will have to make compromises with your time.
  • Make certain your plans include your family in some way. This will help them feel included in your life and less likely that they will try to plan extra activities for you in order to get a chance to see you.
  • Discuss the differing expectations you may have with your family regarding house rules. You cannot expect your parents to forget all the parental concerns they have been practicing for many years.
  • Although you can negotiate new rules (e.g., curfew), you cannot expect your parents to grant all of your requests.
  • Prepare your parents in advance if you will have less than stellar grades to report. There is no use in prolonging the inevitable. Be honest and take responsibility for your performance.
  • If you do not feel comfortable going home, find a friend who is willing to adopt you or make your own special plans.

Now that you’re in college, going home may provide new challenges. You may also find that you have developed new respect for your family. Whether you’re excited or dread the idea of going home, take time for yourself, indulge in a little rest and relaxation, and most importantly have fun and be safe.

If you would like to speak with someone in more detail about conflict and stress, contact UCCS at 624-3323 or Boynton Mental Health Clinic at 624-1444.

Taken from: Student Counseling Center, Tarleton College
Modified: University Counseling & Consulting Services, 2010
University of Minnesota