What to Expect When College Students Come Home

As a holistic health coach, I understand how important it is for everyone’s mental health to feel like you’ve had a successful visit when a college student comes home for a break. But as a parent, I also know how challenging this can actually be. There’s no doubt that it’s a time of adjustment for everyone involved, which can leave you wondering how to navigate short visits as well as summer break. To help you make the experience a positive one for both you and your child, here are some insights into what to expect when college students come home. 

Challenges Faced by Parents When College Students Come Home

Here’s a look at some of the most common challenges parents face when college students come home beginning with what is often the hardest. 

Understanding what the definition of home means

It may warm your heart to hear your college student say on the phone from school, “I can’t wait to be home!” But then, when they get home, you hardly see them – especially if the visit is just for a few days. Here’s the thing. While I’m sure your student misses you and wants to see you, the word “home” doesn’t just mean their nuclear family. It may also mean the house they grew up in, their bed, and almost certainly their high school friends who may be home for a visit as well. 

All of these are components of their vision of home, so as much as you may want it to be, their visit isn’t going to be just about seeing and spending time with you. You are going to have to share them. 

Example Scenario

The night our youngest son was making his first visit home coincided with a concert that my husband really wanted to go to. We decided not to go though because we’d had to put our dog to sleep since our son had been away and we didn’t want him to come home on fall break to an empty house. This wasn’t our first rodeo and even though we knew we were only going to see him for dinner and then he would be out the door, we wanted his homecoming to be as welcoming as it could be.

As we expected, we got him for about an hour and a half that night before he went to see his friends. As far as we were concerned though, we went to bed knowing that we’d had a nice dinner with him, that our baby bird had returned to the nest or was at least in the vicinity for a bit, and that we’d be ready the next day for our allotted snatch of time. 

Adjusting to a different routine

When college students come home, it can be challenging to adjust to having your child back in the house and to accommodate their needs and schedule. If this is your only child, you’ve probably grown accustomed to having a quieter, more organized household, and now you have to readjust to having another person at home. This means dealing with more noise, more mess, and more demands on your time and attention. 

If you’ve had younger children at home, you’ve almost certainly adjusted your routine to fit their needs. Adding another person back into the mix can throw off that new balance. 

You also have to shift your daily schedule and responsibilities to take your college student into consideration. This can be difficult, especially if you’ve grown used to a certain level of freedom and flexibility in your own routine. If their visit is an extended stay, such as being home for the summer or for winter break, it may take some time to find a new rhythm that works for everyone and to navigate the changes in your household dynamics. 

Balancing independence, expectations, and rules

We send our kids off to college to hopefully become independent, free-thinking adults. That’s a good thing – right? The catch is, that doesn’t get put on hold just because they come back home. Instead of having parents and young children under the same roof, there are now parents and adults-in-training who still walk in the door with a hamper of dirty laundry. 

College students may have grown used to living independently and may have different expectations for their freedom and responsibilities. They may have also have quite simply changed and are developing different values. We, as parents, have to navigate these changes and how to enforce rules and expectations to preserve family life while also allowing our children the independence they have gotten used to. 

Example Scenario

If your college kid wants to stay out late with their friends and doesn’t have to be up at any certain time the next day, but you have to get up and be at work the next morning.

Their coming in at 2am and taking a shower in the bathroom right by your bedroom might be a point of contention. 

Mediating sibling relationships

When college students return home, it can often trigger a change in dynamics with younger siblings. Brothers or sisters may not understand why their college sibling is acting differently. On the flip side, your college student may not recognize that their siblings are changing as well. In addition, younger siblings may not understand if the college student doesn’t have to do household chores or follow house rules while they’re home. All of this can strain family dynamics, and it’s up to you, as the parent, to help ease the transition and try to maintain harmony. 

Giving college students space

While being away at college is fun and of course educational, it can be a lot. A lot of people and new experiences ALL the time. Your college student probably has a roommate and is learning how to live with someone else in a tiny space. If they live in a dorm, they probably have to share a bathroom – potentially with a lot of people. Mealtimes are often communal experiences involving many people. In addition, figuring out who they are and adulting is hard work. It can all quite literally be sensory overload. 

When your college student arrives home, they may simply need some space. While you may want to spend every moment possible with them when they’re back at home, they may just need some time alone. 

Tips for Parents to Help Make College Student’s Visit Home a Success

Here are some tips to help make your college student’s visit home a success.

Open Communication

Encourage open and honest communication with your child. Let them know that they can talk to you about anything, including their college experiences and any challenges they may be facing. Try to avoid hitting them with a barrage of questions, but don’t be afraid to ask them about how things are going as well. 

Respect Their Independence

Understand that your child has gained independence at college, and allow them the space to make their own decisions while at home. While you may expect them to spend time with the family, help out around the house, and adhere to certain rules, such as a curfew because of work schedules, it’s crucial to balance these expectations with understanding and flexibility. 

Support Their Well-being

Be mindful of your child’s mental and emotional well-being. Offer support and understanding if they are dealing with stress or other issues. Sometimes, the most loving thing you can do is let them decompress and enjoy the comforts of home. Once they’re back in their familiar setting, they may feel more comfortable opening up. 

Quality Time

Make an effort to spend quality time together as a family, but also respect your child’s need for downtime and spending time with friends. It’s important to acknowledge their newfound independence while also maintaining a sense of family connection. Remember, just as when they were in high school, sometimes the best way to make sure that you have time together to catch up is to camp out in the kitchen. Cleaning up, fixing food, or simply sitting and drinking a cup of coffee often provides a natural way for conversations to take place.

Prepare them ahead of time for changes at home

Just as your child is in a new phase of their life, you may be making changes as well. Students often return home expecting everything to be exactly as they left it only to find that their room has been converted to a home office or that the basement or bonus room is now a workout space or hobby room. This is perfectly fine and natural, but it’s only fair to let them know that ahead of time. While it may still take them some time to adjust to the change, there’s no reason to surprise them with it when they return home. 

Set Realistic Expectations

While it’s natural to have expectations, be flexible and open-minded. Your child may have different priorities and interests now, and that’s okay.

If your college student is home for an extended time, such as summer break, you will definitely need to set expectations upfront. Here are some of the things you may want to consider discussing when they come home for the summer.

  • Is there a curfew?
  • Will the college student be expected to help around the house?
  • Are there regular times each week when spending time with the rest of the family will be expected?
  • Are family dinners expected or optional?
  • If family dinners are optional, is the student responsible for cooking their own meals or will you still do that?
  • If there are any issues around money that need to be discussed. 

The Bottom Line on When College Students Come Home

The bottom line on when college students come home is that it’s a time of adjustment for both you and your child. By understanding the challenges, setting realistic expectations, and offering support, you can help make the transition back home a positive and enriching experience for everyone involved.

Remember, the parent-child relationship is constantly evolving, even when children are older. If you need support in dealing with issues surrounding parenting college-aged children, we’d love to have you join the Empowered Health and Wellness for Women Over 40 Facebook group!

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