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How to reconnect with your college student during the holidays

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Dr. Paul Arnold   Print
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My son rolls up in our driveway and bounces out to hug his mom. My son is home for the Christmas break and my mind is focused on his (but legally mine) dirty SUV. As my son goes inside to get the attention and affection from his mother, I look inside the car and wonder if it is part of a science project exploring the dangers of mold and mildew from old Taco Bell wrappers.

In the first five minutes of my son’s return I am full of competing emotions and questions. I am thrilled to see my son but wonder if he is doing well in his classes. I am happy to hear about the latest party at the dorm, but I wonder if he is using his new found freedom well. He tells me about all his new friends, but I wonder if he has discernment about who has his best interests at heart.

Instead of immediately interrogating your college-aged child when he or she returns, consider the following points:

First, remember that life has changed more for your college student than for you over the past four months. Some kids embrace the new environment of college while others are overwhelmed. Here is one strategy my father used on me; Listen and ask the $25 questions. Over a nice dinner ask your college student warm up questions like “How is your roommate?” and “Are you classes what you expected?” My father was famous for listening for ten minutes or so and then asking what he called the $25 question – a question that made you really think and reflect on your life.  For example – “What teacher has taught you the most about the world and what class has taught you the most about yourself?”

Second, look for opportunities to talk about the big stuff. In a span of four to six years, from age 18-24, most people make the biggest decisions of their lives. What career to pursue? Who to marry? Where do I want to live? What kind of lifestyle fits me? Most college students will flinch if you ask for a “final decision,” so instead look for ways to help them talk about and think through their decisions. Be careful not to dominate the conversation with your opinions. College students yearn to have the respect and trust of their parents so make sure you help them in the process and avoid panicking when your college student seems indecisive or confused.

Third, take the time to communicate your family holiday schedule and  expectations for the college student. So often college students and parents have a different idea of what is an "ideal holiday season." For college students, they want a vacation from the pressures of school. They want to reconnect with their friends. Parents often expect their family to temporarily go back to the “old days” when their child was still in high school. It’s not uncommon for most fights between college students and parents to be about taking out the trash or not being home for the family dinner. It’s amazing how much better a holiday break will go when the parents and the college student sit down and talk over expectations (household responsibilities and the family calendar).

My son loves college life and we see him growing in many ways. There is no way we can turn back the clock and keep him home with us, so we have learned to make the most of the time we do have together. Together we decorate the Christmas tree. Together we are going to see the latest 3-D Imax Christmas movie. Together we will open up our presents on Christmas morning. And when he leaves to go back to college in his recently cleaned up SUV, we will accept that we have to share our son with others and be thankful for the time and conversations that keep our relationship with our grown son strong.

                                                                                                                                                    - Dr. Paul Arnold

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