They're Baaaack! How to Avoid a Holiday Clash When the Kids Come Home From College

Filed under: Holidays, Teen Culture, Expert Advice: Teens

Joseph Shrand's kids, from left to right, Becca, Jason, Sophie and Galen, will be home for the holidays. Credit: Dr. Joseph Shrand


Joseph Shrand may be dreaming of a postcard perfect white Christmas, but he knows from the Ghost of Christmas Past that the odds of all being merry and bright are seriously stacked against him.

Shrand recalls last year's winter break scene when his two college-aged children returned to their Marshfield, Mass., home. Eldest daughter Sophie, 22, now a senior at Northeastern University in Boston, planted herself on the couch to watch dozens of Tivo'd episodes of "House" and "Grey's Anatomy." Son Jason, 20, now a sophomore at Northeastern, slept every day until noon then rushed out to see his friends.

"We barely saw him at all," Shrand, who is also dad to Becca,13 and Galen,15, tells ParentDish. "There were times when (my wife) Carol and I would be really hurt ... not angry, but feeling like we, the parents, who had changed these kid's diapers, were being dismissed as a checkbook for college."

Welcome to the winter break wonderland for parents of college students nationwide.

"Parents are challenged to not feel angry and resentful when their college kids comes home, lie down on the couch and seem to disappear into a world of video games or TV," says Shrand, a doctor who works closely with hundreds of teens and their families at Harvard University where he is the director of CASTLE (Clean and Sober Teens Living Empowered), an intervention unit for at-risk teens. "You work all day and this kid comes home from college and thinks you are their servant."

Teri and Greg Gault are preparing for their son, Christian, to come home for college during winter break. Credit: Joe Gault


For parents who dropped their sweet freshman off on campus last fall, this holiday season promises to be a turning point.

Visions of mother-daughter cookie baking, along with the car that just weeks ago awaited you in the driveway (with gas in the tank), are suddenly transformed into a grueling month-long marathon called winter break, you are not alone. Teri Gault of Los Angeles already had a trial run over Labor Day weekend when her freshman son, Christian, 18, came home from college in Texas.

"He commandeered my car for the entire weekend, came in with six or eight friends at the wee hours of the morning, dogs barking, at 3 a.m., hollering, laughing, wrestling," Gault, tells ParentDish. "I awoke each day to teenagers sleeping like a pile of puppies all over my house. By mid-afternoon, the living dead made their way into the kitchen like zombies ready to eat anything in sight. Then they were off with my car, to repeat the routine, leaving the wake of the hurricane that had hit and run. "

Determined not to be a stressed-out, nagging Scrooge this holiday season? Check out these survival tips from our experts:

Create a parental pre-empt. Form a united front, Julia Simens, a clinical psychologist who works with teens and their parents, tells ParentDish.

"You do not want the kid playing Mom against Dad and at the last minute," she says.

Simens, who also is mom to Jackie, 19, and Grant, 16, recommends parents do a "what if?" Suggested questions:"What if she asks to stay out all night? What if she sleeps on the sofa until 2 in the afternoon? What if she dumps her stuff and we don't see her again because she is staying at her best friend's house?

Forget great expectations. High school curfews and rules about doing laundry and other chores may need to be adjusted, Houston Dougharty, vice president of student affairs at Grinnell College in Iowa, whose college freshman daughter, Allie, attends Earlham College in Richmond, Ind., tells ParentDish.

"Most young people get their first taste of real independence when they go away to college, and some are reluctant to give that up when they come home," he says. "While ground rules may need to be set or upheld, parents must keep in mind that their sons and daughters have moved to a new stage in their lives, one that requires acknowledgment and flexibility."

Do your homework. "Parents may joke about turning a child's bedroom into a yoga studio or office when he or she goes away to school, but in some cases, it actually happens, causing family friction," Houston says. "On a more serious note, students may return home to find that a favorite pet or a neighbor has passed away." He recommends no surprises.

Just say no. College students all have a mantra "when I'm at college I do this," Lou Manza, a professor of psychology at Lebanon Valley College in Annville, Pa., and father of two college-aged sons, tells ParentDish. "While my college-aged sons are adults, in the legal sense of the term, being that they are still living with us, there are still some rules to abide by. If they were truly on their own, they wouldn't be coming back to stay with us during their school breaks. And that, to me, is the key."

Stay mobile. Don't get stranded, Devra Renner, author of "Mommy Guilt: Learn to Worry Less, Focus on What Matters Most and Raise Happier Kids," tells ParentDish.

"Your college student can drop you off at work, use the car during the day and pick you up at the end of the day," she says. "If they complain, tell them its a 'carpool empathy exercise' given all the years you schlepped them to practices or rehearsals."

Don't sweat the small stuff. "Though you might be ready to pull out your hair as you watch your kid sleep until 1 p.m. every day in a room that looks like a tornado hit it, it's best to let these things slide," says Stephanie Kaplan, founder of HerCampus.com. "Kids come home from college feeling like they deserve a break -- they've just finished a tough semester that culminated with a difficult round of finals -- and they see winter break as a time to recharge."

Gault, who owns TheGroceryGame.com, says her freshman son's preview visit last September has prepared her for the holiday season that lies ahead.

"I'm ready to take it all in stride, bite my tongue, wear blinders, earplugs and steer clear of the onslaught," Gault tells ParentDish. She's already stocked her freezer and pantry with "Hot Pockets, frozen pizza, Fruit Roll-Ups and chocolate chip cookie dough."

And, remember, even if parents are held hostage without a car and fall sleep-deprived trying to enforce their nocturnal child's curfew, experts say kids still need their parents.

"Your kids still need you," Shrand says. "They still want you to be a mommy or daddy."

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Start by teaching him that it is safe to do so.