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Going Home for the Holidays

For many students, going home for the holiday break is the first extended period of time spent with family since arriving at college. While there may be some wonderful things about returning home, for many students (and their parents) this can also be a stressful time. Things may have changed at home: parents separate or divorce, your old room may be an office now, old family rules might feel unfair, parents might not recognize how much you've changed since leaving home, or maybe home was never a particularly happy place for you to begin with. In this article I will talk about some strategies for managing vacation time and coping with family problems that might arise around it.

One of the things that can make returning home difficult is learning that the actual structure of your family has changed. Maybe your parents have separated or divorced since you went away to school. There are many parents who "stay together for the kids" and, once you go off to college they feel no need to do this anymore. Or maybe your parents have been separated or divorced for a long time. Either way, this can provide a challenge around holiday time in that you might find yourself having to split time between parents and even whole sides of your family. Trying to divide your family time might take up so much of your vacation that it leaves little time for you to see friends or do other things you might like to do at home. If you grew up with a single parent, you may find that (s)he has developed new friends or a new romantic relationship that leaves you feeling excluded or less valued.

These kinds of changes in family structure can leave you feeling like the home you left is gone forever. One way to manage this is to talk with parents ahead of time about how much time you'll spend with them. Ask them if there are things they want to do with you and let them know if there are things you'd like to do with them. Additionally, let them know if you have made plans to get together with old friends and plan to be out a lot. Your parent(s) will likely want to spend some time with you and will be happy that you considered their needs on this at all. If you are going to be sharing time between two families, establish these plans ahead of time and let everyone know what you'll be doing.

While family change can make vacation stressful, sometimes it's the fact that your family hasn't changed that's causing problems. Old family rules, curfews, and expectations just may not fit anymore. You have been living independently for at least a few months now and your parents may have trouble acknowledging this and altering their rules and expectations accordingly. This can also be something you talk about with your parents in advance of your coming home. Review what the old rules were and propose some new ones, understanding that there will likely be a negotiation process involved. Clarifying rules before you get home can help reduce conflicts around them once you're there.

For many students, home has never been a happy place and the idea of returning there for vacations might feel like anything but a vacation. If being home is exceedingly complicated or painful for you, you might decide to spend a holiday with a friend's family. Alternatively, you could opt to take classes over the winter break and stay on campus. There are also numerous work or volunteer opportunities that provide housing and/or involve staying overnight, which would allow you more time outside of your home. Vacation time is meant to be exactly that: a break. If being at home does not allow you to relax and feel rested and ready to come back to school then planning to spend time somewhere else might be your best option.

Everyone experiences family conflict and "growing pains" at times. Being able to reflect on your family dynamics and the ways that they've shaped who you are and how you interact with others can be very helpful. It can also allow you to have greater understanding and compassion for your parents and other family members. Even if they hurt you or disappointed you at times (and everyone's parents do), they helped to shape who you are today. There are likely to be at least a few ways that they've shaped you that feel positive to you, and keeping this in mind when you're around your parents can help to minimize conflict and tension in the relationship.

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