I can remember it like it was yesterday.
I was home from my first year of graduate school, and my younger brother David, four years behind me, was home from his first year of college. Thanksgiving was over, we’d made it through Black Friday, and now I was relaxing with my parents watching the 10 p.m. news, a ritual to my parents. In a few minutes they’d shuffle off to bed.
The sports segment was coming on, so it must have been about 10:20 p.m., and David came walking through the family room, slickly dressed in a polo shirt, sports jacket, and his Sperry Topsiders (this was the ’80s), heading for the garage.
“Where are you going?” my mom asked.
“Out with friends,” David said.
“Out now?” my dad asked. “It’s almost 10:30!” He couldn’t believe this. It was bedtime, and David was just then making for the door.
But David was equally confused: “Yeah… so…?”
And I sat there on the sofa cracking up, because four years earlier I had done the exact same thing, and gotten the exact same reaction: “You’re going out now … ?”
By the seventh child, you would think my parents should have gotten it, but they didn’t: David’s clock had changed. He was on Central College Time, and they were still on Parent Time.
The first time home after being away from college can be a tricky affair for both parents and students. Sure, it’s a happy time: The student re-connects with family and home and perhaps high school friends; the family is happy to have their departed prodigal back with them. But it’s a time that can lead to some conflict and stress. I’ve always told my freshmen as I was teaching them and this break approached to be careful when they first go home. Parents are so happy to see their son or daughter again, and to them, it’s often a great pleasure having their child back under the roof. But to the college student, everything has changed; she’s been out on her own, an adult; she’s been making her own choices, deciding what to do with her time. The parent often expects that the son or daughter will return to that relationship of dependence and subordination that shaped the relationship in high school; the college students often chafe at the rules and restrictions of home, now that they have tasted adult freedom. Conflict ensues, and what should be a happy occasion can turn unpleasant.
So what can you as a parent do to ease this transition?
Accept and adapt to the new time schedules of college students. College students keep really different hours than you and I who live in the working world. Like my brother David, your son has likely shifted his sense of what “late” means, when people go out, and when they wake up.
Recognize that your college student has experienced a great deal of new freedom, and needs — and deserves, as a burgeoning adult — to have some of that freedom at home as well.
Realize, too, that college has been stressful — papers and exams and new friendships. Coming home can be stressful, too.
Plan ahead of time for expectations: what chores, responsibilities, and rules will be for this new adult who is nevertheless living in your home.
Don’t pamper your son or daughter. Expect him/her to contribute, to pick up, to help out.
Make clear that while you are willing to be adaptable to shifts in things like time and certain freedoms, this is still your house, and you still have rules.
Even with the shifts in time, there can still be acceptable times for coming and going, especially if the adults in the house have to get up for work, and maybe even more especially if there are younger siblings who have school.
You are under no obligation to change your rules just because someone is home from college. For instance, if you have rules about alcohol and underage drinking, you should be clear that you will stick to those, no matter what your student may have done or not done at college.
Communicate. Ask questions more than give advice. Your student may want to share triumphs, stresses, struggles, anxieties. Be patient and let them slowly open up about these things.
Home comforts — favorite foods, routines, and family activities — are important.
Your student will be different — of course that will be the case — but a severe change could indicate a real problem that happened and needs to be addressed.
Some students may want to reconnect with high school friends and so will need some non-family time; others may find they have moved on. Some may want to throw themselves back into family life; others may need to hold back a bit, wanting to preserve this new independence. All of this is normal. Let your son or daughter think these things through and (within reason and your house rules) make his or her own choices about degrees of engagement.