Summer break brings challenges — and rewards — to both college students and their parents

For many college students who have just completed their freshman year, coming home for an entire summer after being on their own can be quite an adjustment. For their parents and siblings it can be just as tough.

The solution, says an expert on the freshman transition at Washington University in St. Louis, is open communication and support for a student’s burgeoning independence.

Parents of college students returning home for the summer shouldn't be offended if their child spends a lot of time keeping in touch with friends from school.
Parents of college students returning home for the summer shouldn’t be offended if their child spends a lot of time keeping in touch with friends from school.

“Even though students come home during breaks, it can be very different when they are home for an entire summer,” says Karen Levin Coburn, associate vice chancellor for students and dean of the freshman transition at Washington University in St. Louis. Coburn is also co-author of the acclaimed book, “Letting Go: A Parent’s Guide to Understanding the College Years,” which, in its fourth printing, has sold more than 300,000 copies.

“For many students, the decision to return home for the summer raises issues about separation, identity and independence,” Coburn says. “Freshman year may be their first glimpse of freedom. They wonder if it is possible to go home and still maintain their newfound independence. They are proud of that independence and aren’t used to being asked where they are going and when they plan on returning.”

Coburn offers several tips for students and parents to keep in mind when the student comes home for the summer:

New technology makes communication much easier. “Students will probably spend a lot of time on their computer Instant Messaging (“IM’ing” in their lingo) their college friends — making plans to do things together or just catching up,” Coburn says. “It may seem as though the student is back home in body, but not in mind. However, it’s very important for the student to maintain relationships with college friends during the summer break.”

If there are siblings at home, the family has to reconfigure. However, that usually isn’t simple, Coburn says. “For example, the middle sibling has been used to being the eldest, and it may be more of a drag than a delight to have big sister home again.” Younger siblings may need support from parents when the returning college student goes off with the family car without consultation or monopolizes the phone hour after hour.

Parents who welcome home an only child or the last to have left the home may realize that they have gotten used to privacy and a clean house, Coburn says. “Though parents enjoy the reinvigorated hustle and bustle of family life, they may have moments of longing for the spontaneity and quiet of life on their own. Actually, that ambivalence is not unlike the ambivalence their child feels about being back home versus being on his or her own.”

Conversations between parents and students are essential and can be extremely rewarding. “Summer break is an opportunity for students to reflect on the year — on ways they have changed, on what they have learned and on how their goals are evolving,” Coburn says. “Conversations between parents and their college age children about these topics can be extremely rewarding for both parties.”

Summer break also provides students with the opportunity to introduce their parents to some of the ideas, books and disciplines they have discovered during the past year, Coburn adds. “Parents who engage in conversations of this sort with their children, rather than just asking them about grades and professional goals, are likely to find this a very rich experience. It’s a great feeling to have your child open up new worlds for you. Listen to their excitement over new ideas without judgment. Ask your child to recommend a favorite book to you.”

Make plans early. Though the summer lasts for several months, it’s often a challenge to coordinate family schedules. Plan ahead and consult your newly returned college student when making plans for family vacations and other family events, Coburn suggests.

In this age of terrorism, parents and students may be anxious about students’ travel plans, especially when traveling abroad. “When students are traveling, it’s important to set up clear expectations for keeping in touch,” she says.

Refrain from doing everything for your student. It’s easy to fall back on old habits when your child returns home. “Though it may seem easier to do it yourself, encourage your college age student to continue to take responsibility for the things he or she has been handling in college: medical appointments, finances, communications with the college or university, car and computer maintenance. This helps your child continue to grow self reliant and competent,” Coburn says.

Help foster independence in your student. “One of the things we wrote about in the introduction to our new edition of “Letting Go” is that this generation — the boomer parents of Millennial kids — is used to a very hands-on approach,” Coburn says. “So they may be especially challenged to step back when their kids are in their orbit again. They have been used to making plans for their children and orchestrating much in their lives. Their intentions, of course, are to provide help, but doing so can sometimes inhibit their college age child’s growing independence.”