You’re not the same kid you were when you left a few months ago. A psychologist explains how parent-child conflict is completely normal when college students go home for the holidays—and the best way to avoid it.

By Maggie Seaver
November 27, 2019

You did it—you survived the first semester of college. Or, better yet, you probably crushed it. Now, after the endless all-nighters (studying, or otherwise), stressful exams, and goodbyes to your new college friends, you’re headed home for the holidays. 

The funny thing is, after coming back from being away for so long, home might not feel quite the same as it did before you left for school. That’s because you’re not quite the same as you were before going away. You’ve been slowly but surely learning to live without the familiar routines of home—including your parents rules, schedules, and expectations. You’ve met new people, gained new perspective, and maybe even developed new political views. 

Your parents, too, have been, slowly but surely, learning to live without you, the person who was once the center of their lives, and adapting to a new you-less daily existence. They may have turned your bedroom into an office or storage space. Or maybe they’ve left everything in its place, eagerly waiting for you to come home—while you’re not interested in being treated like a kid anymore.

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In a weird way, you might feel like somewhat of an outsider in your old childhood home, which can be pretty unsettling. But here’s the thing: It’s completely normal. The problem is not that things have changed—that’s the natural way of things. The problem is that both college students and their parents let those changes go unacknowledged, which can lead to miscommunication, edginess, bickering, and even bigger arguments. 

So, what can college kids expect when returning home for the holidays after a life of freedom? Sherry Benton, PhD, ABPP, the founder and chief science officer of TAO connect, an online therapy assistance tool, breaks down how to spot child-parent conflict and diffuse it with communication—before it blows up into something bigger. Because why fight during your precious holiday break?

Things have changed on both sides since you've been away.

According to Benton, when you leave for school, your home-life routine and relationship with your parents kind of get frozen in time. 

"When you go to college, and whatever the structure was when you lived at home [is no longer] part of [your life], and you adapt in this whole other way to create your own budgeting, laundry, how you set your hours, and what you spend your time doing," Benton says. Of course, you may call and text each other while you’re at school, but the constant, consistent day-to-day experience with each other goes away.

Parents may expect you to pick up where you left off.

Your parents may assume you’ll revert right back to your old familiar ways, that their relationship with you will be exactly as it was when you lived with them. 

"When you go home, parents tend to assume you’re going to take up where you left off," Benton says. Meanwhile, "you’re in a very different place than the day you moved out…. You’re coming in as kind of a different person who’s had all these new experiences, all these new ways of functioning, and dealing with your day-to-day life. But your parents haven’t seen that day-to-day change over the course of the semester."

Coming home for the holidays after a few months of independence, this sort of assumption by your folks can feel stifling and irritating. You love them and appreciate them, but you may also feel like telling them, "I can look after myself, now, thanks." 

Or, parents may expect you not to pick up where you left off—even though you want to.

"Sometimes it’s not so much that they want to take up where you were the day you left, but that they now expect you to take on more of an adult role," Benton adds. In other words, you can’t just drop off your laundry and have them do it for you anymore.

RELATED: How to Handle the Holidays When Your Family Is Far Away

This can also be just as stressful. You’re exhausted and maybe even a little homesick, and all you want is to be able to come home have your parents take care of you again. How strange to feel like your parents’ standards for you have completely changed—especially if you weren’t expecting it.

Everybody is operating under different assumptions, which can lead to conflict.

Now you’re probably starting to see the potential sources—and subsequent buildup—of tensions from both sides. 

"It varies by family, but what happens is, everybody is operating under a set of assumptions that are no longer true," Benton explains. "You’re a different person than you were, and your parents haven’t seen what those changes, and don’t know. So you’re back in the house and there’s a lot of miscommunication and misunderstanding about how it’s going to be or how you’re all going to interact."

Sound familiar? The question now is, how do you relate to your parents as a young adult instead of high school kid—and how do your parents relate to you as a young adult?

To avoid miscommunication and conflict, you have to talk about it.

Bottling up your emotions rarely does any good. If you’re experiencing irritation, recognize it and be open about it.

"The best way to deal with it is conversation, and the biggest thing is to have the conversation about expectations," Benton says. "If no one talks about and kind of negotiates those different sets of expectations, the tension builds and builds until you have some kind of blow up." 

Bring it up early.

"For some families, you can be direct and start to talk things through," Benton says. She recommends bringing it up casually by saying something like: "It’s going to be really cool, but also kind of weird to be back in the house. What do you think that’s going to be like?" 

For other families, it might be more about tackling little conflicts as they arise. "When the tension happens, instead of getting defensive or engaging in some kind of argument, recognize how normal it actually is," Benton says. "Of course, when changes happen and people don’t really process it, people will have different expectations [and reactions]. As things come up, you have to talk about them, but not with a lot of conflict or anger. When the irritation and obvious differences in expectations come up, say, 'OK, we’re thinking about this differently—let’s talk about that.'"

Practice empathy.

Your parents love you, and you love them. When you start feeling that twinge of annoyance at something they’re doing—or not doing—stop and remember that they’re getting used to having you back at home too. You’ve been gone for a few months, and they’re either so psyched to have you back that they’re treating you like a little kid again; or they’ve actually gotten used to their empty-nester routine and expect you to get in line as a grownup. It doesn’t mean they don’t love and miss you, it simply means their expectations have changed.

"There’s such an adjustment to having a kid back in the house," Benton says. "Very often kids are such a focus in a parent’s life, and it’s an adjustment every time they’re at school, at home, school, and home again—just like it’s an adjustment for their kid."

Bottom line: If your first holiday break back from college feels a little strange, don’t panic. It’s an adjustment period for everyone and perfectly normal to feel tugs of irritation or experience a little conflict with loved ones. The important thing is to identify them and talk about them together before letting any strain spoil your time together.

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