When Your College Student Comes Home

by Julie Cohn
When Your College Student Comes Home Tips for Empty Nesters4

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I usually only talk about food and travel here, but one area I have become a (somewhat reluctant) pro at is empty nesting.  Scratch that.  I am not a pro at all, some days I am a warrior, other days I’m a hot mess.  Our son (and only child) is now a senior in college, so my husband and I have navigated the “when your college student comes home” thing for about three years now…with a few battle scars along the way. During those three years, we’ve had several ups and downs, lots of growing up to do (all of us), and a fair amount of letting go (gulp). 

We are getting there…just in time for grad school!

One particular area that we’ve had to work on as a family is when our son comes home from college.  Life changes when our kids go to college, and as parents, we have to change too. Hopefully, these (tongue-in-cheek) tips and infographic will inspire you on how to handle life when your son or daughter comes home from college. 

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When Your College Student Comes Home

A lot changed when our son left for college.  We missed him terribly. Not having him safe under our watchful eye and roof was distressing.  Was he happy?  Was he healthy?  Was he making friends?  Many of those fears were alleviated when we met his roommate and friends during parents weekend, but he was still six hours away, in a new city, making a new life without us.  Those few months were not easy.  Still, he was happy, healthy, and doing well, so our sadness slowly gave way to relief that he was at a great school and enjoying the college experience.  

Coming Home

The first time our son came home from college for Thanksgiving, I was practically giddy.  The time between college drop-off and Thanksgiving seemed like years.  We saw him for parents weekend, but that was like,…what…five weeks ago? How could a mother survive that long without seeing her baby?! Before he arrived, I cleaned the house, made all his favorite foods, decorated the house early for Christmas, and counted down the seconds for his plane to land.  


His hair was longer and he had a beard.  Okay, I could deal with that, my baby was home!  Hmm.  Except that he was not a baby anymore and he had a bit of an attitude.  What the hell?  This was not the baby I dropped off at college three months ago!?  Didn’t he miss us too?   

Being the overly emotional mother I am, I didn’t handle his attitude well and there were a few tears (mine, not his).  I was hurt and resentful that he was not as excited to see us as we were to see him, and he was annoyed that I did not treat him like the adult he had become…yet, he was not quite acting like an adult.  I overreacted and should not have been resentful toward him. 

Letting Go

Our responses, though not right, were normal, and one of the many growing pains a family goes through when kids leave the nest.  Our young adults are on their own at college for the first time ever, with new people and freedoms they aren’t accustomed to at home.  They also have new stresses and concerns they did not have to deal with when sheltered at home.  Life can be overwhelming for them and coming back home to the nest is both comforting and stifling.  Add in a smothering mother (me) and you get exactly what happened to us.  I needed to let go of the apron strings a little (a lot) and he needed to understand that this is still his home, and life at home is different than at school.  

As parents, we want our kids to be happy, healthy, and well-adjusted.  We want them to have friendships they enjoy and friends who will nurture and take care of them when we are not around. Of course, when they come home they will miss the friends they spend 24/7 with, this is a good thing, not something to resent.  I should have known that as much as he enjoys his time with his friends, I am still his momma. I had to grow up too and let him be the person he was trying to become.  

Life is scary.  We want our kids to be responsible, make good choices, and learn to navigate the world on their own. College is the place they learn to do this and as parents, we need to allow them to deal with all the ebbs and flows of life while still being there for them when they need us.  Growing up and away from us (in a responsible way) is something to be celebrated, not resented. Our son is a great guy who loves and respects us, does well in school, and works hard.  I should have given him more latitude, not attitude, and I should have given him more respect.  No wonder he was a bit nippy.  I needed an attitude adjustment. 

More latitude, not attitude.

Our son needed a bit of adjustment too.  He needed to understand how hard it was for us as his parents to let go of him after all those years of having him home with us and he needed to be conscious of our feelings too. It’s not our fault he is such a great guy that we genuinely miss him when he is not here.  If he was a jerk, we would not miss him at all, right! 

He also needed to understand that if he wanted to be treated like an adult, he had to act like one while at home. No more leaving dishes to pile up in the sink, no more expecting mom to do his laundry, no more talking to us like a bratty toddler when he did not get his way, and no more acting like he was a guest in our house. He was still part of the family and still had to pull his weight when at home.

As a family, we all had changes to make.  Just because he was an adult, it did not mean we would stop loving him or worrying about his welfare but we needed to encourage him to make his own decisions and live with those choices because it was only through choice (and the obstacles that might arise) that one grows and learns.  Most of all, we needed to trust him.  Trust that we raised him right, that he would know the right choices to make, and if he didn’t, that he would know how to make amends.  Coddling him was not helping anyone, it was actually holding him back. It was essential that we were here for him when he needed us, but we needed to let him come to us for it and not give it out so freely. When he was willing to talk, we needed to learn to shut up and listen.  It was (and still is) a tough thing to balance giving out advice without also giving too much opinion, but for the sake of our family, we needed to learn a few boundaries and more respect for each other. 

Although Thanksgiving was stressful, we did not want to damage our relationship with our son, so by the time he came home for Christmas break, we talked things over, adjusted our attitudes (all of us), and our time together was more relaxing and joyful.  I honestly believe he missed us as much as we missed him when he went back to school in January.  ♥   

This was not the end of our disagreements, but as a family, we work hard to grow and evolve, to love and respect each other as adults. None of us are perfect, some days we fail, some days we succeed. Life constantly changes, with new challenges every day. As parents, the best thing we can do for our new college students is to grow and evolve as much as they do, while showing them we are proud of their choices.  We need to be here for them when they need us and keep our home the safe and comforting refuge they need from the world, not a place they resent coming home to.  

He’s been home from college several times since freshman year and we work more on it each time he comes home. One of these days we will get it right. Letting go is hard, but love and respect are powerful bonds that tie us together as we grow and change. 

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To lighten the mood, here are some humorous tips on how to deal with When Your College Student Comes Home…you’ve got 105 days until Thanksgiving to get ready!  🙂  And if you want a printable version of this to put on your fridge, here’s the printable version!  


Tips for Empty Nesters: When Your College Student Comes Home Infographic

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