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Home for the holidays: welcoming back your college student


December 12, 2017

That child who went off to college is returning more mature, making her own decisions and schedule. Here’s how to navigate winter break.


For families with a college freshman, the first winter break can be quite a challenge. It is typically the first extended time back home, and if you don’t plan ahead, clashing expectations can really make a mess of things.

I found this to be true back in 1981 when I went home for my first vacation. I remember horrible fights with my mother that Christmas, including angry accusations that I was “treating the house like a hotel” because I was spending more time with my high school friends than my mom had expected. Nearly 30 years later, when my own daughter was a freshman home from college for her first extended break, I tried my best to remember my own experience and avoid some of the pitfalls I had with my parents.

Here are some lessons I took away from both experiences, although I was not totally successful implementing these as a parent.

Things will not be the same as before your child left for school.

Your child is returning a young adult who has grown and matured — and who has been making her own decisions and schedule for four months. You’re different, too. In fact, all the family dynamics will have shifted. Siblings will have settled into routines and roles without their older brother or sister in the mix. Simply recognizing this will help you prepare for conflicts that may arise.

Discuss plans ahead of time — no surprises and no assumptions.

Find out how your child envisions the time home to unfold and what plans may have already been made. Let your child know what you are looking forward to about having him home and discuss any family plans. It is reasonable to expect him to spend time with family, but it is also reasonable for him to expect some space to do things with friends, too.

Talk upfront about curfews and such.

Remember, she’s been doing her own thing for four months. Consider adjusting house rules as appropriate for your child’s new status as a young adult. That said, it would be inconsiderate of her to come and go with no word to you and to keep you up worrying all night. Come to an agreement about expectations before you end up in a fight at 3 o’clock in the morning.

Expect a lot of sleeping.

Your child is likely sleep deprived and needs to catch up. Also be prepared that sleeping late and staying up late is the norm for college students. (You might even remember back in the day when you went out instead of went to bed at 10 p.m.) The best part about all that sleeping is it will give you lots of time to just look at him. If he’s really out of it, you might even get away with patting his back or running your hand through his hair.

Have favorite foods on hand.

Now is not the time to try new recipes. You can be pretty sure he’ll want the comfort of some old standbys. Before your child comes home, ask if he would like any specific food in the house or any favorite meals.

Ask open-ended questions but don’t pry.

Remember, your child is now a young adult with a right to some privacy. You don’t tell your mother everything, do you?

Enjoy the time together.

If you have truly major issues to discuss or serious problems to resolve, that’s one thing, but if it really doesn’t matter, my advice is to let it go. This is a special time that will go by way too quickly. Don’t sweat the small stuff, because you’ll be sending him back off for spring semester soon enough.

Most of all, be sure to show her how much you love her, reassure her that she is missed but also let her know you are proud of the young adult she’s become. This is a vacation but it’s also a springboard into what you both hope is a successful spring semester.

Here are some additional tips from student health and wellness at Vanderbilt University.


This post was written by Cynthia Manley, who leads Vanderbilt University Medical Center’s social media team and is a proud mom to adult daughter Mary Jane.