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You're not at college anymore

By Kim CampbellStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / December 22, 2004


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.

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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.

Plenty of changes on both sides

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.