Navigating the Thanksgiving tightrope

By Lee Shulman Bierer

I’m updating one of my most popular columns. It’s about the challenges of dealing with your children when they return home from college for Thanksgiving.

College students are about to head home. For many freshmen it will be their first visit back since packing up last August. Thanksgiving, the uber-American family togetherness holiday, can be equally tough for parents and their college students.

Parents often feel that they’re traveling on a tightrope of unpredictable emotions. One parent confided, “we want to hear what’s going on in their lives, but we don’t want to pry. We want them to catch up with their high school friends, but we don’t want to be left out, either.” What’s a parent to do?

It’s all about balance, isn’t it? We miss them, we love having them home and honestly, we love when they go back and our homes can return to a sense of normalcy. Striking that perfect balance isn’t easy. Here are a few suggestions to hopefully make the Thanksgiving break reunion both meaningful and uneventful:

  • Let them sleep. Expect a lot of zzz-time. They’ve probably just had big papers due or exams and sleeping is a great way for them de-stress and catch up.
  • Ditch the curfews. Have an adult conversation that lets them know that you trust them, but be firm about your concern for their safety.
  • Recognize that their priorities might be different from yours. They need to reestablish themselves at home and reconnecting with friends can sometimes recreate unwanted drama from high school. Most students thankfully see their family as their rock of support, i.e., the people who will always be there for them, but they aren’t always as appreciative as you might like.
  • Manage your own expectations and share the expectations you have for them with them directly.
  • Check with them before they come home to see what plans they’ve made. Don’t be melodramatic or overly demanding of their time.
  • Strike a balance and don’t assume they want to be with you every moment of every day, but, at the same time, don’t assume they don’t want to join you.
  • Be prepared for moodiness. They’re dealing with lots of emotions and they need a safe haven. It can be confusing for them to determine where exactly “home” is. I remember vividly the first time my son referred to his college as “home.” I was saddened, but recognized it really was his home and that was a good thing.
  • Let the chores slide but don’t allow them to take advantage of your generosity. So, yes, they can clear dishes and help out around the kitchen, etc., but it’s probably not a great idea to present them with a “honeydo” list of tasks they need to get done before they head back.
  • Make them return to school. Some students will be counting the minutes until they can head back to campus; to their new life. And there are others who haven’t quite acclimated as hoped and they will plead with their parents to stay put and drop out. For many students leaving the creature comforts of home, after 4-7 days with good food, good friends, no homework and free laundry services, is challenging. They may not want to go back. If they drop out now, it will mean the entire semester is lost; the money, the credits, etc. At a minimum, encourage them to return and at least complete the first semester and agree to renew the discussion over Christmas break. The settling in period, when they feel truly at home at college, often happens between Thanksgiving and Christmas.
  • Try not to cry as they pull away. Sorry, guilty as charged!

Bierer is an independent college adviser based in Charlotte. Send questions to:;