When Attitude, Bad Habits and College Students Come Home for the Holidays

A college student’s first winter break: what to expect when you’re expecting the worst.

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Illustration by Dewey Saunders
Charlene Mulholland can’t say she wasn’t warned. It started almost as soon as her twins, Jimmy and Char, removed their caps and gowns on high school graduation day this past summer. Her friends doled out advice and shared possible scenarios of what she might face once her kids headed to college. Their ominous warning: Just wait until they come home for break.

“I kept hearing about how their kids tried testing the limits once they came home,” says the Media mom. “I’m definitely dreading the holidays, in a way.”

According to local experts, such apprehension is completely normal. “A lot of parents get wrapped up in the romantic notion of the kids coming home, but what’s coming home is a child who’s going to feel oppressed now by his or her teenage bedroom,” says Tricia Ferrara, a licensed professional counselor with a private practice based in Chester Springs. “Kids now think they should have all adult privileges, which is unnerving to moms and dads, to say the least.”

Parents should be realistic and anticipate the possibility of their kids coming home with a new sense of bravado and freedom. But conflict can arise when students realize they’re no longer in complete control of everything at home. “They are really running the show when they’re away at school, and that’s not really a bad thing,” says Ferrara.

It is possible, though, for parents and their college-age children to find peace in the household and goodwill among family members. Ferrara recommends clear love over tough love.

“Having a good, candid conversation with your kids before they come home is probably that ounce of prevention you need,” says Ferrara. “You can assume that they’re going to want to stay out later, or that they’re not going to be as willing to participate in household chores because, technically, they don’t live there anymore. If you set expectations ahead of time, you’re much more likely not to lose energy in the back-and-forth of it. At the end of the day, it just creates resentment—and you don’t want to send your child back to school feeling resentful toward you.”

Mulholland made sure she and her husband had a talk about expectations back in August, when they dropped their daughter off at Penn State and their son at Temple. “They do think, ‘I’m 18 years old and in college, and I can stay out as long as I want—until 2 or 3 a.m.,’” she says. “My husband and I were clear that their curfew once they come home is going to be 1 a.m.”

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