You're not at college anymore
NEW YORK — Ask college students what it's like when they go home for the holidays - especially freshman year - and their stories range from being treated like royalty to feeling like slaves.
Their parents aren't ogres, of course, but figuring out how to be the mom or dad of a budding adult can sometimes require an instruction manual - or periodic advice.
That's why school advisers have plenty of suggestions at this time of year. They know both parents and students go through changes when a child goes to college, but that making plans in advance about the holiday schedule can smooth the transition home.
"Sit down and talk at the beginning of the vacation," advises Karen Levin Coburn, assistant vice chancellor for students at Washington University in St. Louis.
She recommends that parents tell their sons and daughters that it's great to have them home and that they recognize things are different, and then talk about issues that need negotiating. Those can include how much time is spent with friends, the policy for staying out late, and what each person expects to happen during the visit.
"Students are so pleased to be treated with that respect by their parents that they're much more likely to be understanding of their parents' need to know where they are, of their parents' need not to worry," says Ms. Coburn, coauthor of "Letting Go: A Parent's Guide to Understanding the College Years."
Winter break is a good time for talking about changes, say campus advisers, as it's typically the first time freshmen are home for an extended period.
While they were off at classes, their family may have moved to a new city, converted their room to an office, or given it to a sibling. Their parents may have grown used to having a quieter home, and their siblings may have gotten used to having the phone and car to themselves.
The returning students can be different, too. Aside from being exhausted from finals, they may come home espousing vegetarianism, or having new political or religious views. They may have developed new habits, including staying up until 3 or 4 in the morning and sleeping until noon. They could have more empathy for their parents, or less tolerance for certain family traditions.
All of these changes can lead to conflict, especially when expectations of parents and students are at odds.
"Parents need to know that this is going to be happening," says Marshall Duke, a psychology professor at Emory University in Atlanta.
"This doesn't mean that they've failed in some way," he adds. "[Their children] are trying on new hats, and that's what students do when they're in college. They're looking to try and affirm some sense of who they are. "
One of the biggest causes of tension between parents and teens - who are typically used to coming and going as they please at school - is questions about social activities.
"After being so independent at school, it's just hard to go home and have them asking me where I'm going all the time," says Jill Hubbard, a sophomore at Emory, who struggles with her parents' requests about what time she'll be home.
Each family has its own way of dealing with those concerns. Many parents say it's difficult to completely shut off their worries about a child's safety when he or she is home again - and they try to help students understand why.
"We're not trying to get in her space," says Dottie Hubbard, Jill's mom, who admits that she does worry more about her daughter when she is home. When Jill's at school, Ms. Hubbard can imagine that she's always in the library, she jokes.
One suggestion - offered by Charles Calahan, a dad and assistant clinical professor of family studies at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind. - is that parents try not to think of their students as children when issues arise. Instead, he advises, parents should make the effort to think: "If they were another adult, how would I negotiate this?"
Moms and dads may also be going through "growing pains" of sorts, notes Professor Calahan, figuring out how to be the parents of an adult child, or perhaps learning how to be a couple again if all their children are now out of the house. "It's healthy for parents to learn to let go," he says.
Some parents are already reconciled to the idea that their child is becoming more adultlike.
"They're making decisions every day and every evening by themselves about what's safe, what's not," says Amy Fine, the mother of a Harvard University sophomore. "So to suddenly question their judgment on the two weeks that they're home for vacation - it's a little late for that, it seems."
She and her husband do ask when their son plans to be home, but they expect of him only what they expect of each other in terms of reporting in: call me when you'll be significantly late, because that's what adults who care about one another do.
Their son, Jeremy Hartman, says his parents didn't encroach on his independence during his visits home as a freshman, but they did seem to want to re-establish their parent-child relationship by doing nice things for him: "Cooking for me, going out and picking things up for me. Just general, like, cuddliness," he says.
Instead of trying to return to the previous relationship, college advisers encourage parents to support their almost-adult children in ways that foster their independence during visits home. Have them talk about what they are learning and what their goals are, and encourage them to continue to handle their own finances, suggests Coburn.
If parents are concerned about their student's decisionmaking, ask them questions, suggests Emory's Professor Duke: "If I weren't here, how would you handle [a problem]? If you were away at school, what would you do?"
For all the talk about tension, many students and parents do look forward to winter break.
Emory sophomore Jane Farrington, for instance, couldn't wait to get home to help decorate the tree her freshman year. She had been abroad the previous Christmas, traveling before she started school.
Her parents are pretty trusting of her - she doesn't have a curfew, but she's often expected to include her younger sister in her social activities, Ms. Farrington says.
The atmosphere at home becomes much more lively when Jane is back, her mom has noticed.
"It's like [having] this big, really fun tornado in many ways. I love having her here," says Nancy Tavelli, director of residence life at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Wash.
Still, Ms. Tavelli adds: "We also have this pressure, because you want her to have a good time, and you want to do things that she likes doing, and you want it to be a good visit. So you don't kind of have your normal life quite as much."