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Kid home from college? What to expect – and not to expect

Kids home from college: What to expect - and not to expect
Photo credit: rohappy/Getty Images

Thanksgiving is finally here, and you cannot wait to see her. Your college kid is coming home! Oh, perhaps you’ve seen her, but this may be the first time she’s slept in her bed in her room since August.

You can’t wait. You make sure her bed is fresh, stock the fridge with her favorite foods (which is quite a feat since it’s also full of Thanksgiving foods), and imagine sitting on the couch for hours with cups of tea talking about her classes and her friends. You can practically hear happy banter around the house while the family prepares for the big meal. You can’t wait.

Then she walks in the door. You hug. You say all the things you thought you’d say. “I am so happy to see you! We’re going to have a wonderful weekend.”

Then she dumps her laundry, asks for the car keys, leaves to see her high school friends… and, aside from the actual Thanksgiving meal, you don’t see much of her. Your younger kids start barking at each other and at you.

So much for your happy Thanksgiving break fantasy. What happened?

A new reality

Particularly for the oldest child coming home from the first months of freshman year, the first visit home for a college kid can be… interesting. She has spent the last three months on her own, without your house rules and curfews. She’s had to deal with things on her own, even if she was regularly calling you for input. It’s different now. And it simply cannot go back to the way it was before.

It’s absolutely normal have a few nervous butterflies along with the excitement. For both of you. She may be nervous about being treated like a little kid again, and want to have her new maturity respected.

You may be hoping (whether you recognize it or not) that things do go back to the way they were; you may be a little afraid of her new found maturity. Will she still need you?

New sibling dynamics

Just as your child settled into a new reality at college, so too did the ones who remained at home. New dynamics have developed among younger siblings, and that is going to be upset by the return of your college child, too.

MORE: Keeping the peace at the holiday dinner table

A middle child may be enjoying the role of eldest in the household, or a solo younger child may not really want to share again. And how you as a parent interact with these other children has changed as well. New resentments and conflicts might emerge.

Pick battles carefully

The atmosphere of Thanksgiving break is going to set the stage for the dynamics during the longer winter break that’s coming up rapidly. Neither of you want to end the weekend dreading the winter break. Decide in advance what is most important to you, and try to let the little things go. You can’t expect her to be the same little girl and she can’t expect you to do everything for her like she’s still a little girl.

Communicate, communicate, communicate

If at all possible, try to have a conversation about weekend plans before your child walks in the door. While on the surface this can look like a strictly logistical conversation, it is your — and her — opportunity to convey what is important to each of you over the course of the visit home.

Do you feel strongly about cooking pies together? Set a time for that. What friends is she hoping to see? Are there other family events? Community events? Siblings hoping for solo time? When, where, and with whom? Will she want to use the washing machine? Share a car? What are each of you thinking about curfews and communication while she’s out with friends?

Just as the last few weeks before she left for college were a delicate and sometimes emotionally-charged dance of holding each other close and pushing away, so too will there be steps to negotiate a new normal in your relationship during these visits home from college. Your college child still needs you, though in different and evolving ways.

Thanksgiving — and, subsequently, Winter Break — visits are an opportunity to recharge and reconnect with your college kid. Chances are that no one will have quite the visit they imagined, but neither does it have to be angst-ridden. It can be the start an exciting new phase of your relationship.

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