Going Home for the Holidays

If your family is anything like mine, returning home for holidays may feel like a mixed blessing. On the one hand, it can be a time to recharge from the stresses of school, be with loved ones and friends you may not have seen in a while, and perhaps even enjoy some home-cooked food. On the other hand, you may also find yourself fielding questions you’d rather not be asked (“So, what are you planning to do after you graduate?”) or getting caught up in those recurrent squabbles you thought you’d left behind you when you went off to college.

Even if your family is that rare gem, free of some of the challenges mentioned above, there are many reasons breaks may be difficult for everyone involved. For example, now that you’re used to the level of independence you’ve had while at college, you may expect the same control over your day-to-day activities back home. Meanwhile, your parents may expect you to return to the same rules and routines you had during high school. I’ll leave it to your imagination to conjure up the many exciting scenarios that can result from this collision of perspectives.

In fact, your and your family’s ideas may differ significantly on any number of issues related to your return home, such as the amount of time you’ll be spending with them versus visiting friends; how much to discuss potentially loaded topics, such as grades or choice of major; or the new pecking order any siblings still living at home may have worked out after you left for college. Add to that the exhaustion and stress from which you may be recovering after your final exams and projects – as well as the holiday stress than can arise – and you can see how tensions may run high.

Here are a few tips that may help minimize the stress and enhance your time at home:

  • Consider having a conversation with your family about how things may have changed for all of you since your departure for college, as well as your expectations during the break. That way, even if there are differences in your expectations, you can negotiate something that works for all of you.
  • It may help to let your family know in advance about your plans for the break (e.g., if you are splitting time between various family members/between family and friends, be clear about where you’ll be and when). Be open to compromise and remember that if your family reacts strongly to hearing that you won’t be hanging out with them 24/7, this may be because they’ve missed you and want to spend time with you. Including them as you make plans may actually help them better handle your time away.
  • Think about letting your family know about any “sore spots” (e.g., grades) and setting up explicit times during which these are open for discussion (or, for that matter, off-limits). This way, you are setting ground rules that allow everyone to relax and enjoy your time at home while still addressing any potential elephants in the room.
  •  It always can help to learn and practice using non-defensive language when you see old, problematic patterns emerging — patterns like arguing, apologizing when you didn’t do anything wrong, explaining when explanations aren’t helpful. Some examples of non-defensive responses include, “That’s interesting,” “Let me think about that,” “Why don’t we talk about this when you’re not so upset?” and “I’m sorry that you’re hurt/upset/disappointed/don’t approve.” Saying that you are sorry that someone’s feelings were hurt is different from apologizing for your behavior. These strategies can allow you to “unhook” from old communication patterns and avoid contributing to escalation.
  • If home has never been a happy place and being there promises to be more painful and complicated than restful, consider spending your break with a friend’s family. If you have to return home, you may be able to plan visits with friends, volunteer opportunities, or other activities that will permit you to step away for a day or two and restore balance.

Hopefully, these suggestions can help you start addressing potential hitches in your visit home. That way, your focus can remain on the fun and joyful parts of that experience. Taking time to relax, reconnecting with those you love, and of course, the food.

Susie Musch, Ph.D.
Staff Psychologist