You haven’t seen your child for several months, since she left for her Freshman year of college. During that time, she has been completely independent, on her assent towards adulthood. You’ve trusted that you have instilled within her your values, morals, and integrity. And, now that she has returned, you are both equally excited and anxious about your reunion.
This adjustment period is a milestone for both of you. Enjoy each other’s company and reconnect before engaging in discussions about grades, financial planning, alcohol, drugs, sex, and social behavior.
Holidays in themselves are difficult, simply because of the expectations you assign to them. Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday, as it gives families a chance to move beyond expectations and focus on the gratitude of just being together. Once you become reacquainted and reconnected with your child and settle into the holiday spirit, it is then appropriate to discuss the more serious issues, and catch up with her semester away from home.
Here are some tips that can help you and your child successfully navigate her first holiday break from college:
- Be your child’s anchor and guide. While away at school, your child grappled with the push and pull of feeling like an adult, enjoying privileges of independence while still needing the support and continuity of mom and dad. Children grow up, but parents stay parents, so your child will continue to look back over her shoulder for your approval and acceptance. You will want to give freedom within limits. And those limits are the values that you established within your family. Your child needs to know that, no matter what, you can be counted on to be there for her, right or wrong, when needed, while you foster her independence and desire for freedom.
- Keep all lines of communication open. Touch base each day, even if it is just a little smiley face on a text message. A loving reminder from home is like a thread that helps your child reach back to the safety of home base. Then, when your child is home for the holidays, communication is easier because you established an ongoing pattern of contact during those months away.
- Send your child care packages and favorite snacks while she is in college. These serve to assure your Freshman year child that no matter what anxieties or fears she is experiencing as she adjusts to an unfamiliar environment, she is loved and cared for by her home team: you. Thus, when she returns for Thanksgiving, you have maintained the continuity of relationship that allows her to fall back into the swing of things at home.
- Remember: mutuality is the key to relationships. Your now older and more mature child has returned to you on the edge of adulthood. This is the time to encourage mutuality, respect, and empathic communication. This requires you to respect her privacy, her desire to see her friends, and to catch up on much needed rest. Also, soften rules for curfew and control so that your child can exercise responsibility and reliability without direction. This will show your child that you recognize her developing maturity. Also, being mature means that you can ask your child to check in periodically with a phone call, so you do not worry.
- Use the empathic process. When discussing grades or social behavior, keep in mind my empathic process. This tried-and-true approach offers a safe space in which you and your child can communicate, in an empathic and authentic way, without defense. This invests you and your child in the solutions and consequences of mutual problem-solving.
- Establish new rules. When your child returns home after having been away at school for several months, it is important to recognize that she is no longer a “high-schooler,” but rather, a young adult. Therefore, the old house rules no longer apply. Your expectations and demands transition into a new paradigm. Thinking and planning ahead helps you decide which house rules are important to you and which house rules can be relaxed – then you can pick your battles wisely. Remember, your child is striving toward independence. If you are wise, you will guide your child towards individuation, without making her pull away, and you will support her journey, rather than resist it.