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Set Fair House Rules While Giving Your Student Space

Kate Harveston


You hear a crash from the kitchen at 3 a.m. Is it an intruder? When your college student returns for the holiday break with new habits, you could experience a few surprises — not all of them pleasant.

How do you cope when your baby comes back home as a young adult? How do you give them more independence while keeping some rules in place so you don't lose your mind? It will take some time to adjust, but I can share how my family managed to enjoy the season with a returning college student by leaning on open communication and compromise.

1. Communicate in advance.

Did you know that studies show an astonishing 70% of parents say they struggle to communicate meaningfully with their kids? That's why my mom insists on frequent and open communication with my brother, and this holiday season, she asked that my brother talk with her by Skype the weekend before he arrived.

The first year that my brother returned from college for the holidays, the first thing he wanted to do was reconnect with his high school friends. It caused rifts at home, but my mom learned from the overbearing way she responded to it last year by changing her method this year. She kept the conversation light and avoided talking down to my brother by asking him about his plans in a casual way.

She then segued into, "I know you enjoy not having me there to boss you around. But even though you're now an adult, I still worry about you. Can we please talk about a few things for when you come home?" This openness paved the way to address topics like curfews.

2. Tackle the curfew question.

My parents decided that imposing a strict curfew would create conflict and stress. After all, my brother didn't have to be home by a particular hour while he was at school — and they didn't want to wait up until 2 a.m. since they wake up early for work.

In the end, they agreed that any outings extending past 10 p.m. required a call or a text. My brother could say, "I'm with so-and-so and will be home before 2." They also committed to leaving their cellphones turned on with the volume up — this way, either party could reach the other if they had a concern.

3. Address alcohol and substance use.

My parents prefer to think my brother remains ignorant of the taste of beer and vodka. However, they also realize college students may experiment with alcohol. In fact, on an average day, over 2,000 full-time students will take their first drink of alcohol. How can parents prepare for this and make sure their students stay safe, both at home and at school?

When my brother came home, my parents talked to him about drinking, including letting him know that he can always call them if he needs a ride and they will pick him up, no questions asked. Talk to your college student about drinking and, if you're in a state where recreational use is legal, about cannabis use, too. Ensure they feel cared about, not chastised; trying to control their behavior 100% can foster rebellious attitudes. If your student uses tobacco but you forbid smoking in your home, discuss designated smoking areas as well.

4. Negotiate significant others.

When my brother is away at school and wants to hang out with his significant other, they might head to one of their dorm rooms. When they're home for the holidays, things get more awkward.

If your college student is attached, set ground rules for their S.O. If you expect them to sleep in separate rooms when one stays the night, say so. It's preferable to discuss this matter privately in advance rather than start an embarrassing argument in front of a witness.

5. Get help around the house.

My mom expected my brother to bring home some dirty clothes. She didn't expect him to drop three overflowing sacks next to the washer and walk away.

After a day of stepping around his laundry, she sat my brother down for a conversation about dividing the chores. He hadn't realized she stressed out every time she saw his filthy socks invading the hallway, and after that took care of managing his washing. For her part, she agreed not to refold his clean clothes (which managed to remain as rumpled as the dirty ones). Talk about how you'll divide the chores when your college student comes home, and what you'll expect them to do.

6. Respect everyone's schedules.

My family is full of planners — we like to coordinate where to spend the holidays in advance. We did experience friction, though, when my brother wanted to head out to a reunion with high school friends on the same evening my mom planned to visit my grandmother. In the end, he agreed to spend an hour with our grandmother before meeting his old buddies later.

If it’s important to you that your college student attend specific events, let them know in advance. Ask them to enter dates in a planner if they have to so that they remember. To prevent arguments, hash out potential schedule conflicts before the big day arrives.

7. Fizzle food fights before they start.

My mom made some truly delicious chocolate chunk cookies for her office holiday party last year. I mean, she assumed they were delicious. Long story short — my brother will never live down eating every last one before my mom had a chance to take the cookies to the party.

Bear in mind that your college student probably spent much of fall term noshing on ramen. They will come home with a hearty appetite. If you have a dish you're saving for a special event (or merely for yourself), clearly label it. Better yet, tell them verbally as well which refrigerator items are off limits.

Compromise, communicate and enjoy the holidays with your college student!

Your student will likely come back from school feeling more independent, and they want to be treated like an adult. Keep the holidays respectful, merry and bright by taking a few tips from my family to ease conflicts before they start!

Kate Harveston is a health and lifestyle journalist. Find more of her writing on her blog (So Well, So Woman), in College Parent Magazine by CollegiateParent, and on sites like YourTango, Greatist and Care2.

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