Call it a clash of cultures. Thousands of college students will travel home for the holidays, in their minds, returning as independent adults, but still children in the eyes of their parents, says Scott Hall, a family studies professor at Ball State University.
“When college students return home for their first holidays after having been away at school, they might feel like they are caught between two worlds: echoes of childhood dependency, and nearby adult-like independence,” Hall says. “It is easy to feel the tugs of long-established patterns of home life once stepping back into the family system only recently left behind. Such patterns (to the students) suddenly feel threatening to the ‘new me’ that has been emerging at school.”
He says parents might similarly feel stuck between two worlds: the long-established guardian role versus the recently evolving, remote support staff.
It is tempting to expect what they have always expected or demanded of their child when he or she is back at home. But this may not sit well with the emerging adult who perceives a lessening ‘need’ for parents, Hall says.
“The cosmic dissonance felt by all parties can contribute to power struggles and hurt feelings that overshadow or at least throw off some harmony of the festivities,” he says. “If college students and parents appreciate the tensions among all these colliding worlds and refrain from taking apparent attempts at control or resistance personally, moods can be calmer and interaction can be more satisfying. Just understanding now natural these family dynamics are can deflate some defensiveness.”
Hall points out that both sides may peacefully coexist with discussion and negotiation of expectations and boundaries — things don’t always fall into place on their own.
“College students might need to express their needs for a bit more psychological space and autonomy, while showing a willingness to contribute to the festivities as more of a co-host than an honored guest,” Hall says. “Parents might need to express their appreciation of the child's contributions with more fervency than in the past, and to honor the natural need for more leniency with their default household restrictions — such as longer, or no, curfews. That understanding, and a bit of luck or divine intervention, and everyone might just leave with a longing for future family gatherings.”