Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


The NO-Conflict College Winter Break

6 ways to avoid conflicts with your returning college student.

If you are a parent to a young adult who went off to college this fall, you are probably eager to see your son or daughter for the holidays, especially if he or she attends school far from home. College independence can be a wonderful thing—and riveting for young adults freed from parents’ watchful or worrying eyes.

Many parents and college students who have already experienced this first holiday season reunion, however, have clashed when it comes to getting a newly independent student to re-adopt mom and dad’s rules and preferences.

I asked Cristina, who attended college thousands of miles from home just two years ago, what her experience was like. “I welcomed my freedom with enthusiasm. I could eat cereal on my bed without a deep fear of milk-stain-shaming from my mother. I could stay up long into the night and no one woke me the next morning.”

But, she ran into some conflicts upon returning home. “On my first big trip back home for winter break, I found that aside from being overjoyed to see me, my parents were also quite puzzled by the changes they saw in me and that I took for granted as my rights."

Talking to her friends, Cristina found they experienced close to the same phenomenon: “Our parents were asking the same questions and delivering the same orders they did when we were in high school: ‘Clean up your room. Do you live like this in the dorm?’ … ‘What does “Don’t wait up for me, I’ll be out late” mean?’ … ‘I made your favorite dinner and you don’t eat meat anymore?’ … ‘Why are you sleeping in past breakfast?’”

After a few months away from home on their own, most college students feel immeasurably grown up and independent. If you have one of them, here are six ways to respect the changes you encounter so you and your child can enjoy the holidays and break time together.

1. Talk About Curfews in Advance…

…not when your son or daughter is picking up the car keys to go out for the evening. Request a call, if he or she is delayed for some reason. Explain that you will worry and that is why you are asking. Parents can certainly say, “Please call (or send text message) when you get there or when you are on your way home.”

2. Let Go of the Sleep Advice

This is particularly important if you’ve been noticing a jump in 3 a.m. posts on your college student’s Facebook profile before vacation. Chances are he or she will keep the same night owl schedule at home. Allow your child make his or her own sleep schedule unless you specifically need help in the morning—if, for instance, you are hosting a holiday party and need errands run, cooking assistance, furniture rearranged to accommodate guests, or other party-related details. Be sure to let him or her know know you appreciate the help.

3. When They’d Rather See Friends Than Visit Grandma, Compromise.

Your student is part of the family and some get-togethers are mandatory. Be proactive on this score: Discuss must-attend gatherings out way ahead of time if you know them. That will give your college student time to rearrange or schedule time with friends.

4. Ask for What You Need

If your child has been reluctant to pitch in before he went off to college, don’t expect a miracle change of ways in the helping department.

When college freshmen come home—usually right after the stress of final exams—they’re looking to decompress, not face a list of chores you have been saving up. Parents can interpret this as laziness, or treating home as if it were a hotel. When you need or want help, ask for it, but give your student some time to relax before you overload the task and errands list.

5. Alcohol-free Zone (if under age)

Underage students who may have been drinking while away at school will have to follow this “house rule” again. On this issue, be firm. Don’t be afraid to take the same stance if your college student has picked up other bad habits at school, like smoking cigarettes, which is probably prohibited in your home.

6. Respect the Changes

Although it is easy to fall back into the mommy-daddy parent roles of intrusive questioning and nagging, it is wise to honor your child’s newfound expressions of independence and give up your, “I’m the boss in this house” ways (the exceptions: drinking, drinking and driving, or anything that involves safety).

No one likes to be told what to do. College students finding their way into adulthood probably like it the least. Try to bite your tongue more than you open your mouth.

Related: Off to College, Off to Party, Off to Drink and Drink and...

Copyright 2013 by Susan Newman

More from Susan Newman Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today