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When Attitude, Bad Habits and College Students Come Home for the Holidays


Illustration by Dewey Saunders
Charlene Mulholland can’t say she wasn’t warned. It started almost as soon as her twins, Jimmy and Char, removed their caps and gowns on high school graduation day this past summer. Her friends doled out advice and shared possible scenarios of what she might face once her kids headed to college. Their ominous warning: Just wait until they come home for break.

“I kept hearing about how their kids tried testing the limits once they came home,” says the Media mom. “I’m definitely dreading the holidays, in a way.”

According to local experts, such apprehension is completely normal. “A lot of parents get wrapped up in the romantic notion of the kids coming home, but what’s coming home is a child who’s going to feel oppressed now by his or her teenage bedroom,” says Tricia Ferrara, a licensed professional counselor with a private practice based in Chester Springs. “Kids now think they should have all adult privileges, which is unnerving to moms and dads, to say the least.”

Parents should be realistic and anticipate the possibility of their kids coming home with a new sense of bravado and freedom. But conflict can arise when students realize they’re no longer in complete control of everything at home. “They are really running the show when they’re away at school, and that’s not really a bad thing,” says Ferrara.

It is possible, though, for parents and their college-age children to find peace in the household and goodwill among family members. Ferrara recommends clear love over tough love.

“Having a good, candid conversation with your kids before they come home is probably that ounce of prevention you need,” says Ferrara. “You can assume that they’re going to want to stay out later, or that they’re not going to be as willing to participate in household chores because, technically, they don’t live there anymore. If you set expectations ahead of time, you’re much more likely not to lose energy in the back-and-forth of it. At the end of the day, it just creates resentment—and you don’t want to send your child back to school feeling resentful toward you.”

Mulholland made sure she and her husband had a talk about expectations back in August, when they dropped their daughter off at Penn State and their son at Temple. “They do think, ‘I’m 18 years old and in college, and I can stay out as long as I want—until 2 or 3 a.m.,’” she says. “My husband and I were clear that their curfew once they come home is going to be 1 a.m.”

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It’s a legitimate compromise, since their kids’ curfew was midnight before they left for school. “We always told them that nothing good ever happens after midnight—and second of all, I’m not waiting up for them all night,” says Mulholland. “I’m old, and we have to work. They’re not messing up my schedule.”

As sure as your kid will come home with a laundry bag as big as Santa’s sack, there will be other conflicts that arise. “It’s really important that the parent be open to the changing dynamics of their relationship with their college student,” says Dr. Paula Durlofsky, “and that they, like their college student, will be working on developing a balance between that new-found independence and the continuing need for parental support. The brain is still developing with kids at this age, and it continues to develop into the mid-20s, so parental support is still really important.” 

A licensed clinical psychologist and the author of mainlinetoday.com’s Thinking Forward blog, Durlofsky sees a lot of students at her Bryn Mawr practice. “Relationships of any kind require negotiation, compromise and the ability to see the other person’s perspective,” she says. “College students have had time to grow and develop. They’re independent in a way that their parents have never seen or experienced. In some ways, they have a new person coming home.”

Lea Tran is expecting to see changes in her son, Alexander, who is coming home to Eagleville this month after his first semester as an international business major at Northeastern University. “We try to treat him like an adult now,” says Tran. “I will enforce some type of regulations because, of course, he still is a teenager. I’m going to switch gears, though, and not be the nagging mom.”

That easygoing attitude will only go so far, however. When Tran and her husband, Duc, visited Alexander during parents’ weekend this past October, they had a conversation about expectations. “If he’s going to use my car, I’m going to want to know where he’s going and what time he’ll be home,” says Tran.

And while she knows it will be an adjustment, Tran really is looking forward to having him home. “I hope he’s courteous enough to help out with things,” she says. “He’s not going to treat our house like he’s living in a hotel.”

Since college students are on break, Durlofsky recommends that parents do allow their kids to have a few days to decompress. “They’re coming off of a very hectic, busy schedule that typically involves finals and winding down their semester,” she says. 

Giving them time to readjust will allow other family members to readjust, too. There may be a younger sibling who’s gotten used to being the oldest one in the home or perhaps even the only child. Durlofsky also encourages parents to use the extra time with their college-age children to initiate conversations about their new lives. “They’re going to come home with new interests, friends and experiences,” she says. “You want to give them the time and space to talk about that.”

Naturally, some conversations will be more difficult than others. Returning students may have gained (or lost) weight, become vegetarians, experimented with their hair, discovered tattoos or piercings, or become outspoken on controversial political or social issues. “The first thing is to not be critical or judgmental when the topic is approached,” says Ferrara, author of the recent book, Look Both Ways: 9 Evolutionary Parenting Principles. “If you give them some space, they may bring it up on their own. If not, and you see changes in any of those areas that are dramatic, it might be time to say to your child, ‘You seem like you’re struggling. Is everything OK?’ Very often, young adults don’t know how to initiate the conversation. So parents assume that, since there isn’t a conversation, everything must be OK. But it isn’t.”

For parents, such abrupt changes can be hard to accept. “I refer to young adults at this age as ‘entrepreneurs of identity,’” says Ferrara. “A healthy child will explore and create an identity with new ideas based on the skills you gave them. If they come home from college and they’ve expanded themselves, that’s great—that’s what you want. If we are only producing carbon copies of us, then we’re in for Groundhog day.”

More Health and Wellness Articles
Read Dr. Paula Durlofsky’s “Thinking Forward” Blog
Download MLT’s Healthcare Guide

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