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College Kids: Home for the Holidays

Kids temporarily reentering the family after months of independence may bring home a new set of habits, even a radically different lifestyle. Here's how to minimize conflict and renew your relationship.

Don't recognize your own child? Here's what to do.

For some parents of college-age kids, holidays and other school breaks may seem less than joyful.

For example, the first time Eric came home to see his family during semester break from college, the once clean-cut kid was sporting slightly shaggy hair and an earring in his left ear. Unlike his former self, he also ate his parents out of house and home, seemed oblivious to helping around the house, and transformed his once-neat bedroom into a replica of his disheveled dorm room.

His parents felt as if they were living with a total stranger. While they had looked forward to his homecoming, their barely suppressed anger at his behavior began to get in the way of reestablishing a constructive relationship.

They finally sat down together, talked things through, and resolved the problem. If they had had more realistic expectations about what Eric would be like after spending some time learning to live on his own, the problems wouldn't have upended them quite so much, if at all.

Behavior of this sort is simply an expression of new-found independence and individuality. Although the youngster may appear inconsiderate, irresponsible, even rebellious, that isn't the intention. In the past, parents were there to establish and enforce expectations on a daily basis. Lacking that structure, the youngster's habits are likely to change.

Based on experiences of numerous parents of college-age kids, the following pages describe several problems typical of homecomings of this sort, and give suggestions for dealing with them.

Problem: The child often resists attending family functions and the like.

Solution: The basic issue here, from your college kid's point of view, is "Who controls my life?"

A power struggle won't accomplish anything, so you might say, "Over the next few weeks, we've planned these family events (offer a list). Let us know which of those you want to attend and which you'd rather not." If there are logistical deadlines, let her know. This expression of respect will go much further than simply expecting her to "come around" or nagging her to attend "because you want her to."

It may seem strange to you that your child would travel a long way from college just to stay at home and not be with family, but it may be an important way of expressing her independence as well as testing out the boundaries of her ongoing relationship with you.

Problem: The youngster seems unmindful of the fact that he or she is still a member of a family. The child comes and goes at all hours, messes up rooms, and may even expect to be catered to.

Solution: Be proactive. Try to anticipate the reentry problems and do something about them before they occur. Shortly after the youngster arrives home, call a family conference. Put your concerns and expectations on the table, invite discussion, and reach a compromise. Ask, "What do you think is reasonable for us to expect of you while you're home?" A child of this age is more likely to cooperate when responsibilities are self-defined rather than imposed.

Don't insist, for example, that the child's bedroom be kept neat, and that he or she always clean up messes made in the kitchen. Instead, try to realize that your collegian will probably be more cooperative about common areas like the kitchen if you agree that the bedroom is his or her business, not yours.

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