During the winter break of her freshman year, there was a moment when Tamara Stein realized for the first time that things weren’t the same as they were at school. She had grabbed her keys to go pick up her friends at 2 a.m. — and her parents stopped her.
The sophomore at American University has to check back in with her parents and let them know what she’ll be doing and where she is during school breaks, something she finds an odd adjustment.
“It’s more weird than it is annoying,” she said. “It’s kind of just a weird culture shock, in a way.”
Returning home for winter break — although promising weeks of rest and relaxation and time with friends and family — can often be a difficult adjustment for students after living on their own for months and making their own rules.
“Freshmen have it the hardest,” said Gabbriel Simone, a college admissions counselor and author of I Wish I Knew It Before Going to College. “This is their first time coming home for winter break and they don’t know what it’s like. Coming into freshman year is a whole new world. There’s a whole new environment to learn from, and they’re kind of doing the same thing by coming home.”
Students may be used to coming and going as they please, living on their own and making their own decisions, and the biggest challenge is being back under their parents’ roof with certain expectations, said Karen Coburn, a senior consultant in residence at Washington University in St. Louis and author of Letting Go: A Parent’s Guide to Understanding the College Years.
Sydney Rice, a freshman at the University of Missouri, anticipates certain challenges, such as being pushed to do chores more promptly than she does in her dorm room.
“It’s going to be a challenge because I can’t do what I want anymore,” she said. “They’re going to be nagging me about little things that they didn’t get to nag at me at college about.”
Coburn said students should take the initiative to approach parents to work out compromises, something that can show maturity and prompt parents to listen.
“The more students can take the initiative to talk about these things, the more their parents will have confidence that the student can handle things and is really becoming more independent,” she said.
Being responsible in terms of doing your own laundry, helping to cook or do chores can go a long way in demonstrating independence, Simone said, but students also have to realize that they are living in their parents’ house and may have to give up certain privileges enjoyed at school.
“You’re no longer in your college dorm, so blasting music until three in the morning or strolling into the house at four o’clock in the morning like you may have done in college, you can’t do that at home,” she said. “You have to respect your family’s house.”
Arianna Rudawski said she believes that as long as students are not doing things like stumbling home drunk while their younger siblings are in the house, they should be allowed to bring the independence they have found at school home with them.
“You should be respectful, but rules shouldn’t really have to exist,” said the University of Illinois junior. “I don’t think they should really be enforced at home unless you’re doing things that affect siblings.”
Students need to realize that parents may be slow to adjust, said Patricia Pasick, a psychologist in Ann Arbor, Mich. Upon arriving home, students usually find their parents — having missed them — are eager to see them. Finding the first opportunity to spend time with parents can settle them down, although parents may find it not to be what they expected.
“They have these fantasies about what it’s going to be like,” Pasick said. “I would say most parents are going to be disappointed at the first holiday break because of those imagined scenarios that they think are going to get played out the minute that their kids come home.”
But students may also find that things are not as they expect. Any changes that are made to the home seem shocking to students who expect things to remain the same, Coburn said.
That was the case for Rudawski, who now sleeps on the couch during school breaks. While the rural town of Harvard, Ill., once felt like home, the University of Illinois now does.
“I just wasn’t used to being home and not feeling at home,” she said. “My family’s home doesn’t feel like home anymore.”
Stein said that freshmen come home having spent a semester away, wanting to show off the independence they have earned. The need to prove that independence gradually fades, she said. With maturity, she has learned to appreciate the time with family that doesn’t come often for her.
“Now I value being home a lot more and just respecting rules and being with family,” she said. “I just think it’s something that the more you’re away from, it becomes more valuable. If anyone, they’re the ones supporting you.”
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