Family Holiday Traditions: How to Adjust When You Have a Child in College

by Naomi Mannino

Many families have beloved traditions when it comes to celebrating the holidays and annual milestones like birthdays. For parents with a child away at college, it’s common to wonder how family holiday traditions might change. If this sounds like you, rest assured it’s an entirely normal experience—and part of your student’s personal growth.

“As with each phase of age development, we have to parent differently and this one is no different,” said Jim Burns, Ph.D., executive director of the HomeWord Center for Youth and Family at Azusa Pacific University. “It’s important to understand your college kid is now a young adult, so some roles and responsibilities have changed during the semester away, and will continue to change throughout the college years and beyond.”

Remember, You Are on a Parallel Journey

This is a time when both parents and young adult college students are adapting to changes and growth in the relationship. Burns refers to this as a “parallel journey” because parents are often learning how to parent a young adult for the first time and college kids are typically learning how to be an adult and relate to their parents more as equals for the first time. “Neither party has a job description or an instruction manual,” he noted.

Your expectations on how time is spent—in terms of involvement with each other and the family—may or may not be completely different from your child’s. Remember, college students are returning home after being in charge of their own calendar all semester. So, how can you handle this untraveled terrain together and manage expectations on both sides?

Practice Proactive Conversations

According to Burns, it’s often harder for parents to adjust than students. Parents are likely to expect family holiday traditions to stay the same, while many college students might expect things to change. If you discuss expectations before your student comes home, you can avoid a lot of misunderstandings.

Burns said it’s worth it to hop on the phone when your child is still at school. Consider having a conversation about how you want to spend time with your student while they’re home for the holidays. This allows you to make a plan and compromise if you need to.

For example, maybe you’ve spent the same three days visiting other family members every year, but this year, your child requests more time at home to reconnect with old friends. You can compromise by spending two days visiting relatives instead of three. Changing up some traditions while keeping the family connected can be refreshing for everyone involved. “When approaching these conversations, assure kids that you’re nervous about this and it’s awkward for you, too,” advised Burns.

Consider Potential Alternatives

Also, when you’re having this conversation, ask your child what they think about each tradition and your holiday schedule as a whole. Burns explained that using a “keep, toss, adapt, or undecided” evaluation approach can help facilitate the decision-making process. As a family, you can all decide whether you want to keep a holiday tradition as is, get rid of it altogether, adapt it, or decide at another point.

For instance, if your child can’t come home for the holidays but wants to still be a part of certain traditions, you may want to adapt the tradition to include them. You can call your child during Thanksgiving dinner when everyone goes around the table to say what they are thankful for, or you can video chat with your student while decorating the Christmas tree and hang an ornament in their honor.

Be Creative and Flexible

If your main intention is to stay connected to your college student, then a flexible, creative, and understanding approach to adjusting your expectations is key, according to Burns, who has been through this himself with his own children.

“As parents, we expected that Thanksgiving Thursday would be spent with us as always, but one of our college daughters came home and informed us she was going to Mexico on a surfing trip,” says Burns. “By talking it over with my wife, we came up with a solution to switch our Thanksgiving celebration meal to Sunday every year.” This alleviated many conflicts in the Burns household—and it even applied beyond college, when the daughter had other family and friends vying for her attention on holidays.

If your child comes home for the holidays, Burns also suggested involving them in the more adult roles of holiday traditions, such as the shopping, planning, cooking, and decorating. This helps both parties see each other in new light.

Letting your child know how you feel (and asking how they feel) fosters understanding in your new adult-to-adult relationship. This way, you can preserve traditions that may be important to you and adapt others. By talking about boundaries and values beforehand with a loving, welcoming attitude, you can alleviate stress and enjoy the quality of your new adult relationship as your family moves forward through the college years and into the future.

Curious to learn more about developing healthy familial relationships while your child is in college? Check out Azusa Pacific University’s HomeWord Center for Youth and Family for additional information and insights.