Who's the Stranger Home from College for the Holidays?

Their search for identity can be unsettling for parents.

Posted Dec 17, 2019

It doesn’t take long for the parents of college students coming home for the holidays for the first time to realize the rueful truth of Mark Twain’s remark about his father’s ignorance: “When I was 14 I could hardly stand to be around him, but when I was 21 I was astonished at how much he’d learned in 7 years.”

No surprise, then, that before their offspring’s second Christmas break, those same parents express a welter of confusing and ambivalent emotions tidily summed up by one: “I can’t wait to see them and hug them and I’m already counting the days before they go back.”

It’s not just that they look, sound or act different—in fact, they are! A few months away from the comforts and especially the confines of home seem to have made strangers of them—not just when it comes to observing the rules they tolerated, albeit grudgingly, the last time they lived under your roof, but when they confront you with different beliefs, behavior, values and attitudes than those they subscribed to before they left home.

“It’s not just that I found a girl I’d never met  before showing up at the  breakfast table after spending the night in his room,” said one mother, “Or the fact that she left for a party with a bottle of vodka she took from our freezer,” reported another, “Or that he’s insisting we wash the dishes by hand instead of using the dishwasher because we’re destroying the planet,” commented still another, “Or that he doesn’t even ask permission before leaving the house at midnight, or tell us where he’s going, or even ask before he takes the car,” complained a multitude of frustrated parents. “It’s that everything you thought you knew about your kid was wrong. Or at least, not everything.”

While occasionally you get a glimpse of the children or even teenagers they were, the patronizing know-it-alls they seem to have become, as one parent put it,  have you stumped. “I can’t believe you still (expect, insist, watch, feel, think, etc.) that way!” leaves you scratching your head and rethinking exactly why you sent them off to a place that clearly brainwashed them.

What’s important to remember here is that what Erik Erikson and other psychosocial theorists called the search for a coherent identity is a central task of young adulthood. College is often the first opportunity they have to try on other possible selves before settling on one that fits not just the person they've been becoming all this time, the adolescent exposed to a host of new stimuli and experiences, and adults they will be.

Psychological Identity is the sum of one’s qualities, beliefs, personality, looks, body and expression—the self they recognize as being Me.  A social identity is the self in groups, the self identified by different roles, memberships, groups and relationships, and this self may be the one most changed by the college experience, and most likely to keep changing.

The carnivore who left is still the vegan she’s become, at least for now. The kid with the piercings and tattoos and questionable new habits is still the essentially sweet-natured boy he was a few weeks ago. The one who comes out to you at Christmas is the same one you’ve always loved and supported, so why shouldn’t you continue to?  Data indicate that sexual identity is as fluid in some teenagers as other aspects of the self-in-relation.  

These elements of identity, as well as their trappings, can change at any minute, so thinking of the personas they brought home along with their dirty laundry as costumes instead of cause for concern may be helpful. While some of the possible selves may appall you, particularly in matters of newly pronounced beliefs and values that challenge the ones they left home with, others may make you laugh—the pipe and fedora and cape, or the Goth makeup—but not when they’re looking, please. Some are a passing phase, often played for shock value.  Others may even be the result of the critical thinking you sent them to college to learn.

To just adopt an identity copied from yours or foisted on them by external forces or circumstances is foreclosing this key psychological task; floundering for a while until they find themselves is appropriate at this stage of life. But if identity diffusion lasts for too long—into their twenties— they may be unable to form intimate bonds or make commitments to a career or life. 

Finding one’s self is, or course, a lifelong journey; many go through that search several times in life, as their roles and relationships change. And if you’re the parent of a college student, it’s probably beginning to happen to you, too. Because whoever this kid turns out to be, pretty soon you’ll be thinking about who else you might be besides a parent. But your young adult is at the beginning of the journey, and the best thing you can do is respect it, and wonder who they’ll be the next time you see them.


The young adult's search for identity may trouble their parents, but it's probably only temporary.