Coming soon to a living room near you: a perfect stranger, possessing a near-boundless sense of independence, a fading grasp of routines and a penchant for sleeping until noon. Pierced body parts, seriously bad haircuts and unspeakable boy-/girlfriends optional. The scary part: It's your own prodigal son or daughter returning from college for the holidays.
What's a parent to do?
It's a matter of using common sense. "Sometimes the very best thing is not to say anything when [the student] walks through the door," said Minneapolis psychologist Mindy Mitnick, "to wait until the parents have time to decide what they want to say and how."
It's a matter of being flexible. "These are all opportunities for sons or daughters -- and parents -- to develop skills at making adjustments," said Minnetonka family therapist Debra Orbuch Grayson, "being able to go, 'Well, we've done it this way, but that's not gonna work.'"
And perhaps most of all, it's a matter of listening to Aretha: R-E-S-P-E-C-T, baby. "We really need to let them grow up and become their own people," said Vonny Berc of Plymouth, whose son Aaron is a sophomore at Kansas University. "If you give them some space and leeway, they'll want to come back and be with you. We have to let them become adults."
The holidays can be stressful in the best of circumstances. Throw in a young adult who has just experienced several months of profound lifestyle change, and ... well, as with most human interactions, communication is essential, from both sides and in advance when possible.
A look at how parents and students can make their time together as hassle-free as possible:
Arranging schedules. Discuss this in advance, to establish expectations and foster flexibility. Parents need to understand that their offspring will want to spend a lot of time with friends, and students need to acknowledge that they have obligations and that sundry relatives are really hoping for some face time.
"It's good for kids who have been away to remember that their grandparents and their younger siblings really want to spend some time with them," said Mitnick, adding the caveat that "College-age kids feel strongly about not being micro-managed."
Still, home-coming students shouldn't expect unlimited independence, Mitnick added. "A common mistake is assuming things like 'I never liked going to Aunt Iris' house, so why would you expect me to do that on vacation?'"
Scheduling gets especially gnarly when parents are divorced. "The students then have the added difficulty of managing schedules and expectations of two parents who may not be good at communicating," Mitnick said. "Coming home to competing family plans can be very distressing, and can bring back bad memories of past conflicts."
Addressing "surprises." Now, about that tatt: "I really believe parents need to be accepting," said Grayson. "Most parents already know that something like this might happen. There are fewer surprises than one might think."
But supposing there is an eye-popping piece of jewelry attached to a new body part? A "wait-and-think" approach is probably the parental units' best strategy. "Most parents know that you have to pick your battles," said Mitnick, who works at the Uptown Mental Health Center.
Establishing "house rules." It's ultimately the parents' call on drinking, curfews, chores, etc. -- and it's best to have that conversation face-to-face. "Parents need to say, 'Hey, I understand you've been on your own, but these are the rules at home.'" said Grayson. "But you can't make it personal. You can't make them feel like 'They're doing this to me.'"
It's important not to let push come to shove. Berc, the Plymouth parent, recounted "one funny incident last year. Aaron was making a turkey sandwich, and a bottle of red wine was sitting on the counter. He said, 'I think I'll have a glass of wine with lunch.' I told him, 'Just because you drink at school doesn't mean you can have a drink here.' I think he just was pushing to see if he could do that.
"I'm not gonna pretend he doesn't drink. When he asked about a curfew, I said, 'If you are drinking, you absolutely need to stay where you're at.'"
Avoiding hot buttons. It takes just one misstep to stir things up. One of Mitnick's clients forgot to inform a child that his bedroom had been handed over to a sibling. Ruh-roh. Another example, from Mitnick: "It's the very first meal together, and the parents say, 'So, did you bring your grades up?' It's much better if these kinds of things are expressed as concern rather than criticism."
Parents should "anticipate what might be sticking points, whether it be relationships, changes in lifestyle, grades," said Grayson. "The piercings and all the money issues might be really a place for the parents to be understanding and just listen.
"Really, what kids need when they come home is to be listened to a lot, and for parents to be encouraging and accepting of some of the mistakes they might have made. Parents forget how valuable their role is to their kids. Being casual, being available, that's the key."
Bill Ward • 612-673-7643