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What to Expect When You're Expecting Your College Student Home for the Holidays

7 things to expect when your college student comes home for holiday break

You’ve been dreaming of this moment since you dropped them off in August—the sweet reunion of your baby returning home from college for holiday breaks. But before your vision of a fairy tale homecoming is shattered by disappointment, here are eight common things to expect, as well as how to make the most of your time together.

8 Things To Expect When Your College Student Comes Home For Holiday Breaks

1. They’ll annihilate your laundry room.

Prepare for them to come home with an obscene amount of dirty laundry in tow. And after a semester of doing this chore themselves (or avoiding it and saving it all for break), they’ll expect the laundry fairy (you) to wash, dry, and fold everything for them. Promptly, of course.

Solution: Get all of your household laundry done in advance, because you probably won’t have a chance while they’re home. And consider sweetly obliging their laundry needs instead of picking a fight. It's a small thing you can do to say, “I love you and will take care of you even though you’re a stinky pig.”

2. They’ll want to spend time with friends

Remember the old Folgers Coffee commercial with the older brother arriving home from college and his family waking up and running joyfully into his arms? They should make a realistic sequel to it where he then dashes off to visit his friends all day after having a quick cup of coffee with his family. Because that’s usually what happens. "Buh-Bye, Peeeeter!"

Solution: Plan "family only" times throughout the break and communicate this schedule and expectation for attendance to everyone in advance. This ensures that siblings and parents (and extended family, if applicable) will be together without hurt feelings when someone’s MIA. If you’re divorced, consider how to fairly plan for kids' time to visit both parents without making them have to choose. And be understanding of their need to reconnect with friends they’ve been missing—those relationships are important, too. If you want to see more of them during break, consider opening your home for a gathering of their friends. (But also see #2.)

3. They might test rules you’ll want to stand your ground on.

My daughter and her friends weren’t “party-ers” in high school, so I was shocked when we opened our home during break to a large group of them and they showed up with alcohol brazenly in tow. YIKES! We hadn’t realized that our standard rule of not aiding and abetting underage drinking was now null and void. Based on personal beliefs, legality, safety, liability, and not wanting my home to resemble a fraternity house (especially with high school-age siblings at home), we had to embark on the awkward enforcement of our house rule with a whole audience of beer-in-hand college kids. It wasn’t fun.

Solution: Every home has different rules and standards; gently but firmly communicate your non-negotiables to your college kid before they're broken. Whatever your family’s personal choices are—whether it’s about alcohol, friends of opposite gender hanging out for “all night-ers," etc.—be prepared to exercise judgement and gut-instinct, and maintain your role as parent and head of the household. We learned that even more than alcohol, college kids LOVE food and truly appreciate yummy things prepared just for them. Creating a festive, welcoming atmosphere without alcohol is easy to do with home-cooking and an excess of cheese, sugar, and carbs.

Related: Check out this author's best-selling devotional book for parents:  Release My Grip: Hope for a Parent's Heart as Kids Leave the Nest and Learn to Fly

4. Curfew is a foreign concept.

One of the biggest freedoms college students are used to is owning their own schedule without answering to anyone. If you’re expecting them to return from an evening out promptly within their old high school curfew window, prepare for a long night of waiting and wondering.

Solution: Have a conversation about this BEFORE they come home and vanish into the night. Consider this an opportunity to recognize their new independence as a young adult, and ask for their input on a new household expectation for coming and going that’s based on mutual respect and communication. You might agree to “no curfew,” but they have to agree to let you know where they are and when they expect to come home. (Including if they’ve decided to stay overnight somewhere.) Surrender your parental impulse to watch the clock and worry; just pray for their safety and don't wait up.

5. They’ll sleep. A lot.

College kids are coming home after a stressful time of projects, papers, and finals, and they’re exhausted and burnt out. Sleeping in their own bed without having to study and go to class is a true luxury they’ve been craving.

Solution: Let them be sloths! Allow your home to be a place of safe respite and relaxation without more pressure. Their bodies and minds need a break, so that might mean ditching the idea of planning family time with an early morning “Turkey Trot 5k.” Consider their need for sleep and lounging when planning family activities you expect them to be part of.

 6. They'll surprise you with glimpses of their future adult self.

When I dropped off my son for freshman year of college I kissed my baby-faced boy on his clean-shaven cheek and was aghast when he showed up for Thanksgiving as a shaggy-haired fully bearded man. He looked so different—so grown up—and he even spoke in full sentences and seemed genuinely interested in chatting with his parents. And then when he voluntarily emptied the dishwasher and wiped down the kitchen counters with antibacterial spray I was almost certain this was NOT my kid.

Solution: Soak in the satisfaction of seeing the progress of maturity, acknowledge their"adulting" with affirmation, but don't expect complete transformation just yet. There's nothing like a long, pleasant conversation devoid of grunts and eyerolls that makes a parent realize that this new season of engaging with one's young adult child is much more delightful than in the teenage years. But just when you think it's time to high-five yourself on completing the goal of raising a responsible, competent grown up they'll reveal the true state of their still-developing capacity for adulting by making an asinine mistake, a short-sighted poor decision, or suddenly seem to revert back to teen-like self-centeredness. Don't fret, just roll with it and remember that adulting is a two steps forward, one step backward process.

7. They’ll raid your home for every scrap of food before they depart.

Like vultures scoping out prey, they’ve assessed your pantry of dry goods and will abscond with your entire stock of mac-n-cheese, cookies, crackers, peanut butter, and anything else that meets their fancy. My daughter even took a box of rice back to her dorm and she didn’t even own a pot to cook it in.

Solution: Lock it up or let it go in peace. It’s a personal choice—you can decide what is appropriate for them to have, or offer to take them grocery shopping with a budget, or just plan on restocking everything once they're gone.

8. At the end of break it’ll become obvious that they’re ready to leave.

As much as our college kids look forward to coming home, it’ll become evident as the time wears on (especially over winter break) that they’re getting antsy to return to college and reclaim their independence. And you’ll likely be ready for them to go, too, although it’s bittersweet.

Solution: Let them go. For parents, this is “phase 2” of college drop-off day. It’s not as dramatic, but  sometimes the heartache is even harder as you realize your baby is truly growing up and ready to fly the coop. Love them, savor them, and dote on them while they’re home, and send them back with confidence knowing you’re raising a young adult with their own life ahead of them. It’s the new rhythm of this season of parenthood (and you’ll have a new appreciation for a clean laundry room!).

Written by Kami Gilmour, author of a best-selling devotional book for parents of college students (Release My Grip), and mom of five teen and young adult kids (releasing her grip on her son at college drop-off day in the photo.)


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Showing 12 comments
  • Kristin

    I’ve had my first experience back in October when he flew home for a visit for the first time since he left for college. I totally relate to #1 and #7. Although I’d like to think he was super excited to see me, reality was, he was excited to see the girlfriend and friends. I understood though but made it a point for family time a few hrs during his short stay. Dropping him off at the airport for the 2nd time still was as hard as the first. Although I could have stood there hugging him for hours, I let go! It’s so hard to cut those “mommy strings” but it’s rewarding to see him grow up into an incredible young man and athlete.

    • Shawn

      ALL TRUE! Nothing to add!

  • Gail Post, Ph.D.

    Great overview of what to expect! That first year with children away is so hard on most parents, and filled with so many changes for both child and parent. I would disagree with the laundry bit, though – if they can party with their friends, they can do their own laundry!

    • LeAnn

      Thank you for your insights……so nice to feel not alone in all this season! Your words ring so true.
      Funny about the laundry, He has done laundry since the age of 13 when I told him, “now that your a teenager, teenagers do their own laundry” and has been doing it ever since.

  • Leigh

    Agree with all of the above except the laundry! I’m still working every day even though my college aged child is home. The Least they can contribute while they’re home is to do their own dirty clothes, or I’ll pay 20.00 to take them to the wash n fold. ?

  • AM Innewcomer

    Agree! Last time my child was home he slept for 16 hrs, 14 hrs and 17 hrs, three days in a row! Good grief! And yes, took him grocery shopping on the way back to school.

  • Kat

    #s 4,5, and 6 are absolutely true for this family and our college Freshman! But I’m just so glad to have him home! I love it when his friends come by and sometimes they’ll even sit and chat. Heck, I miss them too after schooling with them for 12 years. It’s true my son’s leaving has gotten a bit easier (he’s come home numerous times during 1st semester as he only has a 2 hr. drive) but I get teary eyed every time I watch him drive off. What an adventure this has all been. Thanks for your wise words! And Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

    • Kami Gilmour

      So true! Merry Christmas to you too, Kat!

  • Kathryn

    Our fourth and youngest child came home for Thanksgiving, which was the day after his birthday. When I called to make arrangements to pick him up at his dorm he asked, “Is it alright if bring all my laundry home and you do it for me as a birthday present?” Of course. I wanted to do his laundry anyway, and now I could do it guilt-free and with the bonus of knowing that he considered it a gift and a favour.

    • Kami Gilmour

      Love this! It’s funny how doing their laundry becomes an act of love we cherish once they’ve left the nest!

  • Lesa

    My daughter and last of 6 to leave the nest, comes home fairly often because she’s less than an hour from home and because she and her friends often come to “the city” for entertainment. And she almost always brings laundry! I don’t usually mind doing it for her because laundry has always been cathartic for me? And, yep, she often takes leftovers and other grocery items with her when she goes back because she’s an athlete and likes to have healthy snacks available which I love❤️ Lastly we’ve been very fortunate not to have to deal with #2. She’s always been very compliant with our “rules” and has earned our trust in the activities and friends she chooses and to come home at a reasonable time according to the situation. We do, however, have issues when she forgets her house keys which leaves us having to leave the door unlocked or get up from bed to let her in?

  • Carolyn

    Pray he doesn’t get hooked by some girl on campus whose sole purpose for being in college and her goal before graduation is to “catch a husband” This happens frequently on Christian college campuses. Don’t ask me how I know this.

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