Winter break survival skills for parents of college students

Winter break is almost here. It’s the time of year when parents eagerly anticipate their college students returning home. They have visions of sugar plums and expectations of Norman Rockwell-like family moments—gathering around the fireplace, playing games, telling stories and eating popcorn.

They will be disappointed.

Norman Rockwell

Winter break is often the first time students return home for an extended period of time and parents are often shocked and disappointed when their expectations are not met. Whether your child has been home several prior weekends or if you haven’t seen him or her since move-in day, be prepared for a change. The student you dropped off in August will not be the same one who returns home for the holidays.

Trust me, I know this firsthand. I had those Norman Rockwell dreams filled with peaceful family time, where we would delight in listening to all the details of our daughter’s collegiate life and enjoy spending quality time as a family.

Here’s what actually happened. She blew in like a hurricane and dropped what appeared to be six weeks’ worth of laundry in the mud room. After a hug and a kiss, she retreated to her bedroom to unpack. I found her there, sound asleep, four hours later.

The first week was wonderful. Hugs, meals together, and holiday cheer. The second week was pleasant. She was grateful for the little things: home-cooked meals, a queen-sized bed, bubble baths, and two-ply toilet paper.

But it all changed during week three. That’s when a snarky I’m-eighteen-and-in-college-and-know-so-much attitude appeared out of nowhere. My defensive instincts kicked in. I wanted to feed humble pie to this budding adult.

Fortunately, I had a flashback to 1988. I remembered a big-haired, bright-eyed college freshman home for her first long break. Me. I recalled the desire to show everybody how much I’d learned and matured. This flashback gave me some much needed perspective and a boost in patience. I had to remember our daughter was teetering on the narrow gangplank between childhood and adulthood—and wanted to let us know she was not the same girl we left on move-in day. She was growing and maturing and stretching her brain to accommodate new ideas and new ways of thinking. Once I recognized this, I was able to relax and listen. I could appreciate (most of) her new philosophies and broadened ideas. We engaged in some stimulating conversations. It was in those moments that I caught a glimpse of the confident, responsible, thoughtful woman she was becoming.

What can parents expect?

Students mature and and develop new habits once they leave home. Winter break will be a more positive experience for all parties involved (including siblings) if parents know what to expect before their students arrive home for holiday break:

  • Your child will come home tired. Expect him to sleep a lot.
  • Your child will come home hungry. Expect her to eat a lot.
  • Your child will come home with piles of dirty laundry. Expect your washing machine to run a lot.
  • Your child is used to having alone time. Expect his need for space.
  • Your child is used to having social time. Expect her to want to see her friends.
  • Your child is self-sufficient and able to manage his own schedule. Expect him to want some autonomy.
  • Your child will come home eager to let you know how smart, evolved, and worldly she has become. Expect to be challenged.

The Disappearing Act

For some parents, the hardest part about a child being home on break is that he doesn’t seem to be home at all. In fact, this disappearing act is quite common, especially among first-year college students. They want to connect with high school friends and perhaps even meet up with college ones. What’s a parent to do?

Discuss expectations (things like curfews, family commitments, etc.) before your student comes home.

Be Realistic
Understand they will want to spend some time with friends.

Be Flexible
It never hurts to remind your child that family living requires mutual respect and some give-and-take. Then, as parents, we must also remember to heed our own advice.

Compromise and communication are key to a cohesive winter break with your college student!


For more valuable tips on navigating the college years…

Get yourself a copy of Out to Sea: A Parents’ Survival Guide to the Freshman Voyage today!

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