I remember when my oldest was coming home for the summer after his freshman year in college. I was positively giddy. I could not wait to have the whole family under one roof again. We could talk for more than 10 minutes on Sundays! We could eat together as a family! Things could finally go back to normal.
After he was home for a couple of days, it was clear that “normal” had a new definition.
Following months of being on his own and doing things “his way” (a phrase I heard at least 20 times a day), my newly returned college student bucked against our family life. Sleep was on his time (i.e., not when the rest of us tended to sleep), meals were often eaten out with friends, and hanging out with his family was not a priority.
Of course, he wasn’t the only one who needed to adjust. When he first left for college, I thought I’d never get used to his empty bedroom or setting the table for three instead of four. Shockingly, however, I did. I also adjusted to less laundry, smaller grocery bills and a significant reduction in noise in our house.
I’m not embarrassed to say that I seriously considered sending him away after the first two weeks. I didn’t think we would ever figure out a way to co-exist. Thankfully, we were able to negotiate a happy truce for the remainder of that summer.
I learned a lot from that experience (although, I admit, I still expect a seamless transition every time my son returns home, and I’m always shocked when it doesn’t happen). Still, after three years, I have developed a “survival plan” that seems to work for us. So far I haven’t shipped him off, and I haven’t fled my house either. We must be doing something right.
1. Set ground rules early.
Don’t wait until you explode to share your expectations with your daughter or son. Take curfew, for instance. I can guarantee that your returning college student will balk at having a curfew. Their argument will go something like this: You didn’t stay up all night worrying about where I was when I was away (little do they know, right?). But maybe you want them home at a reasonable hour so you can sleep without being woken at 3 a.m. by someone making a grilled cheese. Whatever you expect of your student — chores, family commitments, attitudes — address this early and often.
2. Recognize that re-entry will always require some adjustment.
Things will be different every time your student comes home. Even after three years of summer breaks, winter breaks and occasional weekends, the first couple days are always awkward at our house. Everyone is navigating the new setup and trying really hard not to start a fight (well, almost everyone).
I had a bucket list of things we were going to do that first summer, and I think I checked off one item. I spent so much time trying to plan activities that I missed many of the little moments I could have shared with my son.
3. Respect the evolving sibling dynamic.
Maybe your middle child is reveling in her new role of older sibling, or your solo younger child is enjoying his space. With the return of your college student, family dynamics will shift, and new conflicts are bound to pop up. For instance, my youngest, who used to follow his older brother everywhere, now found him in the way. Their bickering was non-stop, and I was forced to play referee over things as ridiculous as who got the middle kitchen counter stool. Eventually they settled into their new roles, but I still mourned the loss of their pre-college relationship.
4. Be flexible.
Sure it’s your house, your rules, but remember that your student has been managing life without you (no matter how many times a day they text). You want to encourage that independence. Now is the time to let go — just a little.
5. Negotiate what you are willing to do for your child.
Will you do their laundry? Cook every meal? Yes, my son knows how to do laundry, but I personally prefer to have all the laundry done at once, and I don’t want my laundry washed like a college student washes his laundry. I also enjoy cooking, so making dinner for everyone isn’t a problem for me. Three meals a day, on the other hand, is not an option (no matter how much my son tries to sweet talk me into making him lunch).
6. Be prepared to see less of your student than you would like.
Toss aside dreams of daily family dinners, game nights and late night talks around the kitchen counter (yes, those were my dreams). Schedule an occasional mandatory family dinner and squeeze in a game or movie whenever an opportunity presents itself (it may be a quick hand of Gin Rummy on a Saturday afternoon at two). Seize any chance to chat around the counter even if that means that you’re awake and willing to make that post-midnight grilled cheese sandwich.
7. Enjoy the spontaneous moments.
I had a bucket list of things we were going to do that first summer, and I think I checked off one item. I spent so much time trying to plan activities that I missed many of the little moments I could have shared with my son. Once I realized it was a lost cause, I chucked my list and started enjoying the found time between us.
Which brings me to a key point…
8. Don’t put your own life on hold.
While you’re making lists of things to do together, don’t forget to pen in time to do your own thing. I know I’m not the only parent who waits around on the off chance that my kid might want to grab lunch or run a few errands with me. I have a friend who passed up a girls’ trip because she wanted to be around for her son’s last day home over spring break — just in case. Turns out her son didn’t even come home that break. He went away with his friends instead! So don’t blow off that yoga class, Sunday morning bike ride, or dinner with friends. And don’t feel guilty about it either.
9. Most importantly, marvel at the new person your young adult has become.
Whatever expectations I have of who is coming through my door at the end of the school year, I am always a little surprised by who actually shows up. Maybe it’s because of a class he’s taken, a new friend he’s met or a new experience he’s had, but every time my son comes home he is a little different, a little more of his own person. And that really is something to look forward to.