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Dealing with Extra Anxiety as You Send a Student to College This FallMarybeth Bock, MPH
With your college freshman’s winter break approaching, it's likely you have a dreamy image in your head about how wonderful it will be to have them home again for an extended period of time. Although they may have been back for a few days over Thanksgiving, this time they will be home for three to six weeks, the length of most winter breaks.
Are you picturing evenings with the entire family playing board games together while a roaring fire crackles in the background, after which you all watch a movie while sharing a big bucket of popcorn? While I'm sure there are a few families out there for whom this Norman Rockwell scene will be a reality, for many winter break might turn out a little differently than anticipated, and it can help to be prepared.
The first day or two your child is home they will sleep a lot. Exhausted from finals and last minute partying, they will burrow into their clean, comfy bed and slumber the way they did as a baby. If you are concerned that they've been asleep too long, you can peek in on them and allow the sight to fill your heart with joy.
I suggest taking a good long look, because after they catch up on sleep you may not see much of them for the remainder of their break.
Having been separated from their high school friends (and possibly a significant other), they will want to pick up where they left off and those reunions will be time consuming. Your freshman does not yet know that by the time they graduate college only a few of those former ties may remain. For now, those reunions will be as heartfelt as the one in the movie “Cast Away” when Tom Hanks’ character’s wife discovers he is still alive after he was lost in a plane crash and presumed dead. Your student’s social life may preclude them from being home much; in fact, there may be days you feel they're using your house as merely a pit stop or drop-off Laundromat in between various activities.
Peek in on your slumbering college student, and take a good long look, because after they catch up on sleep you may not see much of them for the remainder of their break.
Before it becomes an issue, you should discuss house rules with your returning child. I have no actual psychic ability (although I prefer my children to believe otherwise), but I can all but guarantee when the topic of curfew/choice of nighttime activity is broached, your student will say, “You don’t know what I am doing at school/when I go out/when I come in.”
At this point you must explain that, while you understand they have autonomy at college, when they're home you are listening for them and worrying. You can also remind them that you, your spouse and their younger siblings don’t maintain college student schedules and may have to wake up for work or school the next day. When my older boys came home the first few times, there were adjustments to be made on both our parts. My older one especially thought four a.m. was a perfectly respectable bedtime and wasn’t terribly quiet while making his middle of the night meal. It took a while for my boys to understand that they needed to be more respectful when they were home and that a really cranky mother was of no use to anyone, and in fact could truly be frightening.
I also had to remind my sons that our house was not the same thing as their frat houses. While it was nice to hear them comment how clean everything was, it was difficult to make them understand that, although I loved having them there, it was really not my pleasure to constantly move their dirty dishes from sink to dishwasher, change their bedding, food shop and do laundry while they contributed nothing to the cause. I explained that the community efforts involved in dorm and frat living were transferable skills that would be valued in our household.
While younger siblings may be thrilled to see their revered older brothers and sisters they too will need to adjust. My youngest son wasn't happy to see his brothers fly out the door to see their friends within minutes of arriving home, and felt insulted they didn’t want to spend more time with him. In addition, after being the big cheese around the house, younger ones may find being relegated to the middle seat in the car (literally and metaphorically) takes some getting used to.
The good news is that you will all settle into a routine and find a rhythm that works. You may even get some of that family time you had been hoping for. Before you know it, your student will be headed back to college and, despite the challenges, it will have been a wonderful month. After they depart, you can congratulate yourself on surviving the toughest reentry you are likely to face; while there still may be some things to iron out, subsequent homecomings will be easier. You'll be delighted to discover that each time they return, your college student is a little more mature and a little closer to becoming the fantastic adult you know they will be.