Your firstborn’s coming home for Christmas after their first semester at university, and you can hardly wait. You’ll be reunited as a family at last! And you’re determined to make this Christmas epic – your family’s best Christmas ever. Cue strains of Joy to the World!

Carol Kuykendall knows that kind of parental anticipation too. Like a friendly tap on the shoulder however, her book Give Them Wings urges moms and dads not to build up unrealistic expectations about their son or daughter’s first visit home.

“In our minds we see ourselves picking up right where we left off or maybe getting along even better,” writes Kuykendall. “The fact is that both parents and children have undergone changes, and the adjustment to being together again takes time and means navigating over a few predictable bumps.”

Taking a step back and trying to see the Christmas holidays from your child's perspective can go a long way to helping you understand how to keep the season merry and bright for everyone.

Depleted and disoriented

While you’re so beyond ready to celebrate your student’s homecoming, their arrival home, when it finally comes, may feel a little anticlimactic at first. Most kids aren’t looking to start their family reunion with a bang. Rather, they’d prefer everyone to “Please shhh!” so they can sleep like a hibernating bear for the first few days!

And that’s not only because they’re emerging from a string of late nights spent wrapping up assignments and studying for end-of-term exams. They’re likely to be emotionally depleted too.

Returning home, for most students, means a chance to press pause on the most stressful few months they’ve ever faced. From the moment they first arrived on campus they’ve had to adapt to a dizzying onrush of new experiences and new demands in an environment where they had zero social capital at first. In a few short months they’ve had to restructure their life, re-establish their identity and recruit friends from a pool of strangers – all of which takes a toll.

Of course, when that’s your child, you’re waiting to hear all about it – with all the details. Just don’t expect your student to be ready to talk about their experiences right away.

Reflecting on her experience with her son Derek, Kuykendall offers this advice:

“Kids re-enter a vastly different zone when they go from dorm life to family life in a few hours. Derek responded quietly, almost as if he were in shock, and when we gave him his space, he warmed up. We’ve learned not to bombard a returning college student with questions on the way home from the airport, or even in the first 24 hours.”

As a rule, it’s a good idea not to ask your child many questions at all. Returning students say one of their top peeves about visits home is having to face their parents’ probing inquiries. The parent, most often, is simply looking for reassurance that the child they love is doing okay. But from their point of view, students often see their parents’ questions about campus life as overly intrusive or an attempt to re-assert control over their life.

Let your student share their new life with you on their terms, when they’re ready. Simply wait, then listen well when they do start talking.

And if your child wants to binge-watch Netflix for three straight days in a row? Maybe don’t fret over that. It doesn’t mean TV marathons are a habit on campus. On the contrary, that TV binge may be the reward your student’s been looking forward to during the grind of the last few weeks.

Craving recognition of their independence

Try to prepare, as best you can, for some bittersweet moments. Having just got their child “back,” many parents are immediately confronted by what they’ve lost. A son or daughter has changed their hair, their style of clothes, their food preferences, their opinions and outlook, or seems less certain about their faith. The new inclinations you don’t recognize will painfully remind you that your child is growing away from you.

Our instinct is to be critical of these unwelcome changes, but Kuykendall warns parents to be resolutely non-judgmental. Play it safe when making comments by keeping your opinion neutral. For example, perhaps simply point out the obvious: “You’ve changed your hair!” Try to accommodate new dietary choices and the like as much as you can, within reason.

One big change that students always want parents to recognize and accept right away is their new independence.

On campus, students are used to waking up when they want, staying out as late as they want, and socializing with whomever they want. They emphatically don't want to feel like they’re being treated like a child now they’re back at home.

Some of the most common complaints heard from students are that their parents:

  • impose old curfews and bedtimes that now seem ridiculous to their student
  • resent that their child wants to spend so much time out of the house reconnecting with home-town friends
  • expect their child to attend all gatherings with extended family
  • assume their child will attend all the usual church services
  • use their student as a babysitting service or taxi service for siblings, or a grocery delivery service.

It’s not that home-again students are expecting a free ride. They just want parents to respect how much their new independence means to them. The old house rules that used to apply now need to be renegotiated, and expectations need to be discussed and agreed to ahead of time.

Needing reassurance and guidance  

For moms in particular, this milestone Christmas may come with a little teary-eyed Christmas too. It will bring poignant reminders that your family – and your role in it – is changing significantly.

Just as it will be tough for you at times, the holidays are likely to be an emotional roller coaster ride for your home-again student as well.

While many things at home have stayed the same, your student will be sensitive to even small things that have changed. They’ll grieve any loss of connection with their childhood – anything that’s misplaced in their room, every old friend who no longer seems interested in hanging out with them. And they’ll be unnerved by the changes too as they wrestle with secret insecurities that come with their newfound independence: Do I still have a place here at home? Can I really make it on my own?

As Kuykendall astutely points out, this can be a pivotal moment in the life of a family because two different identity crises are coming to a head at the same time. Ready or not mom, both you and your emerging adult are navigating the confusion of major life transitions. It’s helpful to be open about that so you’re always ready to offer each other grace.

“When these similar fears about our losses meet on the same stage, one of two things can happen,” writes Kuykendall. “We can have open-hearted discussions or openly heated arguments triggered by small annoying circumstances. Our angry responses are really about our deeper feelings.”

Why is it so important for you to stay chill? It’s about more than keeping Christmas cheerful and friction-free.

In the rough and tumble of the last few months, your student may not yet have landed on their feet. There could be plenty your child wants to talk about – provided you can create a safe space for them by remaining patient, non-judgmental and approachable.

By Christmas, many first-year university students are already overwhelmed by daunting challenges: issues with a contrary roommate, struggles making friends on campus, challenges to their faith, difficulties meeting deadlines, doubts about their course choices, or doubts about returning to university at all. Approximately one in seven Canadian students do not complete their first year at university.

You still know your child best. What’s likely to be their biggest area of need? How can you prepare now to encourage them? Perhaps start asking the Lord for just the right word of Scripture to share, or ask him to give you wisdom for whatever issues surface.  

Recommended reading:

Give Them Wings: Preparing for the Time Your Teen Leaves Home

Catherine Wilson is an associate editor at Focus on the Family Canada.

© 2019 Focus on the Family (Canada) Association. All rights reserved.

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