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What To Expect When Your Teen Comes Back From College For Winter Break

The holiday season can become progressively less magical as we get older. Then, for four years, college students get to discover another kind of holiday magic: the often month-long break between semesters with no classes, reading, or dorm laundry machines to eat their quarters. Of course, it’s not always that simple: some students take exams after the holidays, for example. But, generally speaking, many college kids are gearing up to go back home for an extended length of largely unstructured time.

Kelly Radi, author of Out To Sea: A Parent’s Survival Guide To The Freshman Voyage, has found that holidays can be a tricky area for everyone involved. While parents may be looking forward to family time, their children may be looking forward to sleeping until noon or catching up with friends. Families also have to negotiate rules that kids may have outgrown now that they’re young adults living alone or with roommates. Radi’s first piece of advice? Set expectations up front. She says her friends often joke about the “great disappearing act,” where students on break immediately want to rush out and socialize with friends. Radi used the example of one friend who told her son “These are the three times I really want [you to be here at home]” and otherwise allowed him to come and go as he pleased.

Some students may use that time home for break to go to parties or hang out with friends they haven’t seen since the summer; some may largely choose to spend the time with family or alone, recharging after a stressful semester. The key is to let your kid exercise the freedom they’ve come to know and enjoy in college — while still getting in valuable family bonding time. While Radi talks about setting expectations for students, it’s also important for parents to set their own expectations about things (rather than just returning to how everyone acted in high school).

“We need to give up a little of that control and respect these budding adults as young adults,” she says.

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But that doesn’t mean your college student has gone from your kid to your roommate, exactly. Radi adds that there should still be mutual respect. While she discourages parents from reinstating high school rules, they should feel totally free to remind their kids that there are rules they might not observe in college that they need to observe while at home. That includes things like cleanliness in common areas, respecting quiet hours when others are sleeping, and giving parents a heads up when they’re going somewhere and when they might be back. Radi also counsels for setting expectations up front again, and even asking the college student what they might feel comfortable with. Maybe, for example, there isn’t a formal curfew but the child agrees to pop their head into the bedroom when they get home — or just send a text so parents can quickly check when they wake up.

And speaking of those late-night arrivals, Radi also says many families have to renegotiate rules around alcohol. While many kids drink in high school (and certainly not every college student chooses to drink), freshman year is often a time when teen’s relationship with alcohol really changes. While the drinking age remains 21, the increased access and exposure to booze on campus can mean your kid may be drinking for the first time; they may now expect to drink at family events, or they may just not make an effort to hide their drinking around parents. Radi’s first rule is that, whatever the parents’ view of alcohol, they should tell their kids that they’ll be ready to pick them up, no questions asked, if they have been drinking and can’t get home safely.

The other rules around your kids and alcohol are going to be deeply personal, and it’s ultimately up to the parents to decide what their own rules are. Just have those conversations (you guessed it!) up front, and be ready to be honest about your reasons. “It’s fine to have wine at the table because we know you’re drinking at college” can be just as legitimate as “I know you drink at college, but your younger cousins are going to be here and I don’t feel comfortable with you drinking in front of them before you turn 21.” Each family is different, and you’ll have to set the rules that make sense for you.

Radi just cautions staying away from rules for rules’ sake, and instead really thinking about why you may want to institute certain house rules. She also thinks parents are wise to pick their battles. Radi suggests giving your child a lot of leeway when it won’t directly affect the family. That might mean knowing they’re up late watching Netflix or playing video games. As long as they’re doing it quietly, however, and it’s not affecting set expectations around family time, she says parents should probably stay out of it. Of course, if you have concerns about, say, a nightly marathon of The Crown that goes until 4 a.m., you should say something. But instead of telling your kid they need to be getting more sleep, instead pose it as a question: “How do you think this affects how you feel?”

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That’s one phraseology Radi suggests. But if you’re worried there might be a larger issue going on, like a child sleeping until 3 p.m. because they’re depressed, you can also just ask general questions about how they’re feeling. If they are just really burned out, have a conversation about what pressures they’re feeling, and where they’re coming from (coaches, professors, social groups). By asking questions and brainstorming, you’re moving into more of what Radi refers to as a mentoring role and lessening your position as an authority figure. But, she adds, you know your kids best. If you’re especially worried your child might be struggling with mental health, you can also reach out to campus services to see what kind of options are available; you can also call the Suicide Prevention Hotline if you need immediate guidance. You can reach someone online 24/7 or call 1-800-273-8255.

Dr. Laura E. Happe, PharmD, also counsels parents to be on alert for potential issues around drug abuse.

“One of the reasons parents often don’t realize their kids are abusing drugs is because the warning signs of drug abuse look a lot like normal teenage behavior,” she says. “For example, people who are abusing drugs may be irritable, moody, or sleep a lot.” But there are a few signs that can point to larger issues: people abusing drugs can often be secretive or lying, or have a suddenly new group of friends. If parents are reasonably sure there is substance abuse going on, Happe says the worst thing a parent can do is say nothing.

“For a child who is experimenting with illicit substances, parents should continue to share information with them on the risks, ask questions about their use patterns, and watch for signs of substance use disorder,” she says. Students with more serious use problems may require intervention or time away from college. She finds parents are often more willing to discuss tobacco and alcohol but not drugs, including the risks around prescription drugs.

As with mental health, parents concerned about their teen’s substance use should seek the help of a professional. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration has a free hotline that can help parents find support groups, community organizations, and more. You can call toll-free, 24/7 at 1-800-662-HELP (4357).

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