When the Kids Come Home

Our students are home—maybe for a long time as colleges and universities continue their efforts to contain the spread of Covid-19. Perhaps your student came home for Thanksgiving and will not return to campus until the new year, if at all.

That’s a long time together. With the service industry at a standstill, part-time work that might have occupied our students on break may be nonexistent this year. Between travel restrictions, spikes in cases, and cold weather, many of our students are just in the house—and possibly at loose ends.

Add to that the ebb and flow of our evolving relationships with our young adult kids. With every passing term, our older son, Haydon (who graduated from college in May), found fresh opportunities to flex his wings and new ways to discover his own autonomy. I loved seeing him grow and change, but when he came home, we often struggled to land the balance between my expectations for behavior “under our roof” and his evolving independence. While I eagerly welcomed him at every break, by the time he was heading back to school, we were both ready for him to go. I love the psalmist’s words: “How good it is when brothers and sisters dwell together in unity” (Psalm 133:1). And I also recognize how challenging that can be at times!

How can we avoid reverting to earlier seasons of our parent/child relationship when our kids come home? Even better, how can we grow in relationship together when they are back for breaks?

  1. Ask questions. If possible, have a conversation about their expectations before your student even leaves campus (or when they get home—though maybe not the second they arrive after finals when they’re weary and just want to catch up on their sleep!). Ask: What do you hope for during this break? What are you concerned about? What do you need? What are your goals physically, socially, spiritually? How can I help you achieve them?

    When I make an effort to go for a walk with my son and ask him authentic questions (while refraining from giving all the lectures that might be running through my head!), I usually hear answers that surprise me and remind me who he really is.

    I’ve also learned that this conversation may need to happen multiple times if they’re home for an extended season.
  1. Give them space—but not too much. It’s an ongoing parental dance. If I pepper my kids with all my lists and expectations, they tend to check out and disengage from me and the family. Haydon told me recently that he sometimes felt guilty for needing alone time when he came home. He wanted to engage with friends and family, but he also needed some space to decompress. On the other hand, if I ignore how much time he spends sleeping or online, I may miss any signs of depression or struggles.
  1. Agree together how you will be safe during Covid. Last spring/summer we had multiple conversations in our house about how we were navigating public health, and we will do that again over winter break. It’s exhausting and stressful, but instead of closing our eyes and hoping everyone is on the same page, we need to do the work to honestly check in with each other, while asking God for ongoing wisdom and grace. How do we come together, with enough mutual trust, to agree on a behavioral covenant together?
  1. Recognize that your student has changed—and so has the family. While our college student is away, the family is adapting and creating its own new habits. Haydon’s younger brother missed him terribly when he left—and then got used to his absence. Then when Haydon came home, we had to find a new equilibrium, which was sometimes a rocky path. We all had to name that, again and again.
  1. Don’t neglect your own spiritual practices. When my kids come home, sometimes I’m tempted to break my own routines in favor of the family’s adjusted schedules. I skip my morning prayer to make breakfast or choose to do errands instead of taking 30 minutes to go for a run. That catches up to me quickly—and usually comes out when I snap at the people I live with.
  1. Find creative ways to be together. This year especially, we are being pushed to think differently about how we live and connect with each other. Haydon told us that he especially appreciates unstructured down time together—when we all sit in the living room, reading our own books or doing our own thing. He loves the togetherness and the freedom to just be together without agendas. In what ways can your family connect well with each other in this season?

I enter into this elongated break with my eyes open and a spirit of gratitude, remembering that this may be an opportunity to be together in unique ways. And I invite the Holy Spirit into our midst, praying, “ May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus” (Romans 15:5).

Cathy Norman Peterson is a writer and editor with two young adult sons. She lives in Chicago.