Welcome Home, Stranger: How To Reconcile Expectations With Reality When Your College Kid Comes Home


Welcome Home, Stranger: How To Reconcile Expectations With Reality When Your College Kid Comes Home

Moms, dads, and younger siblings will be welcoming their college-aged family members home this week.

Following the end-of-term flurry of final exams, holiday formals, packing, saying goodbye to friends and roommates and beloved (or despised) professors, packing up and then making the trek home, your kiddo will soon arrive on your doorstep and you’ll be excited to welcome them in with open arms. You may have a lot of expectations about what that will look like. Maybe you’re envisioning that they’ll be eager for the warm embrace of family and ready to gather around the table for a home-cooked meal, ready to share stories about the semester, and resume bickering and bantering with younger siblings. But remember that your young adult child who has taken a major step into becoming an independent adult has their own expectations. They may not look as much like a heartstring-tugging, tear-inducing Hallmark commercial as yours.

But Mama, that’s okay. Here are a few tips to guide everyone through this new territory:

1. Get a handle on everyone’s expectations

Start by acknowledging your own expectations. You may not have been intentional in setting your expectations but simply have a vague feeling about how it should go based on stories shared by friends, your past relationship with your child, your memories of coming home from college, and of course, the stories and mythologies we absorb from books, movies, and other media. Are you hoping to hear about her favorite classes and all the cool new things she has learned? Do you want big hugs and to hear how great it is to taste your home-cooked meals? Or do you expect them to hop back on the chore train as soon as they unload the car and walk into the house?

Once you’re clear on what you’ve been imagining Baby Bird’s return to the nest to look like, talk to your spouse and any other children in the family. What are they expecting? What moments are they looking forward to? Is a younger sibling wanting to have epic video game contests while Dad hopes to have long talks about the books they’ve read or what new music they’ve discovered? Has a younger sibling grown more independent and no longer wants to be teased or bossed around in the same ways their big used to do before leaving? Have open and honest discussions with everyone in the family about what they hope this reunion will be like. And that includes the returning conqueror. Whether it’s on the drive home (if you’re picking them up) or in a phone call once their finals are done, ask your college kid what they’re most looking forward to about being home and if there’s anything they’re worried about with coming home. Ask if they’ve made plans to see friends while they’re home or if they expect to be going out a lot. And ask if they’ve thought about what it will be like to come home.

2. Recognize that they’ve grown and so have you

The kid you sent away to college just a few months ago is about to come home a changed person full of insights and opinions and with a growing sense of independence. They’ve now experienced new ideas, new people with different ways of living and life experiences, and have been living with a different set of rules and newfound freedoms. Coming home to the same set of rules and dicta you applied when they were younger or apply to their younger siblings can be a recipe for unnecessary conflict. After all, they’ve managed to survive and hopefully thrive while being away and making their own decisions about most things; you probably don’t need to grab the reins so tightly by expecting all the old rules to apply once they come home.

Take time to discuss which rules can change. While it’s reasonable to expect everyone in the family to contribute to chores and keep the house clean while they’re under your roof, maybe you can negotiate and extend old curfews. Rather than adhering to a strict and specific time-based curfew for your adult child, discuss a framework based on mutual respect. Ask them to respect the needs of the household by understanding that while they may be on vacation, other members of the family still need to get up for work or school so late returns on weeknights need to be limited and made quietly so as not to disturb other family members. Perhaps a rule that the entire family sits down together for dinner can take into account that your kid wants to see friends who may only be in town for a limited time. You can still stress that you want to spend time with your kid while allowing them the freedom to see the other important people in their lives. Talk with them and figure out a plan that meets everyone’s needs.

Remember those new ideas and opinions mentioned above? Prepare yourself for those. Your former flower child may return as a full-blown Alex Keaton-styled Young Republican or vice-versa. And while you may not love the change, you should love that your child is growing, learning, and spreading their wings just as you raised them to do. Thinking critically and exploring new ideas are part of maturing. We aren’t meant to simply be carbon copies of our parents regurgitating beliefs we haven’t fully explored or evaluated based on our own values. Be open to mature discussions and willing to hear their thoughts on a variety of subjects.

But, when your child comes at you with some pretentious notion like mine did when he came home and told me he wasn’t interested in a film I wanted to watch because “it’s fluff and not meaningful at all,” just laugh inside and don’t take it personally. More than likely, you delivered a similar line to your parents or at least thought it back when you were young and in your know-it-all stage. One day, he’ll look back and be embarrassed and hopefully you can laugh about it together.

3. Don’t forget to include younger siblings in discussions

Make sure the kids who are still at home full-time get to share their expectations and needs with you and your older kid or kids. Do they share a bedroom or bathroom that has been solely theirs for a few months? Allow the younger sibling to define and express their needs for shared use and cleanliness. Does your college kid have a habit of bossing younger siblings around or trying to parent them? Keep in mind that the younger sibs may not be so keen on taking orders from someone who has been gone for the last few months and give them space to let their older sibling know that dynamic is now unacceptable.

On the other hand, maybe your younger child has been heartbroken without their big and wants to pick their relationship right where it was and isn’t prepared for a busier, more independent sibling who doesn’t want to engage in activities they now find “childish.” This is an opportunity for you to step in and let your older child know what their love and presence means to the younger child and negotiate or coordinate activities and time spent together that provides meaning for everyone.

Let this be an adventure where you and your young adult continue to learn about and learn from one another. Be intentional with your interactions. With a little openness and a willingness to relax and enjoy the journey with your child rather than coming into this period with rigid expectations, you can create a new dynamic with your young adult that reinforces a strong foundation for the next stage of your relationship with them.

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Dawn Downes
Hey, y’all! I’m Dawn – a native Tennessean who could not wait to escape the small town for the big city. After attending a women’s college in Atlanta, I took root there and stayed. One marriage, two homes, two kids, and 25 years later, here I am, back in Tennessee. My husband moved here in January of 2016 to start a new job while our two boys, Brendan (born 2003) and Beckett (born 2006), and I stayed behind to finish the school year and sell our house. We arrived in July 2016 and have been working to make a happy new home here since then. We love living on the North Shore and I am enjoying finding unexpected beauty and little joys throughout our new city. I am also mama to fur babies, Josie the Rhodesian Ridgeback/Lab mix, and Miller, a sweet orange and white tabby cat. I'm into art, movies, music, TV, pop culture, nerdy stuff like Doctor Who and Game of Thrones and I know more than my share about the DC Universe, Pokemon, Minecraft, Battlefield, and all things LEGO thanks to having two boys.