Connecting with college students over break: they’’re bringing home more than their laundry

Parents all over the country are anticipating their young adult kids coming home for the holidays. For some, it’s the first time they’ve been home since they sent them off and set them up for the college school year. Home will feel like home again.

Likely, they’ll bring their laundry, too. 

If you’re one of those parents, you’ll see them walk in with that laundry bag slung over their shoulder, and in that moment, you’ll have a choice. (But more on this in a minute.)

Your college-aged child has been away for several months. This is a blink of an eye for a parent, but a crucial chapter for your emerging adult child. They’ve tasted life on their own, made their own decisions, set their own hours, navigated their own dilemmas, encountered their own relationships, and resourced their own challenges.

The child you said goodbye to in the fall isn’t the same one who’s coming home this winter. Beyond their laundry, they’re bringing home other things that you need to consider.

The child you said goodbye to in the fall isn’t the same one who’s coming home this winter. (tweet that)

1) They’re bringing home their spiritual and religious doubts … and they need to know that you’ll stick with them.

My research on college students discovered that at school, they encounter new experiences and ideas that challenge their religious and spiritual assumptions. Students in my study shared that they were comfortable working through their intellectual challenges, but feared that if they expressed their questions, doubts, or beliefs that diverged from what their parents or pastor believed, there would be relational consequences. They didn’t want to upset Mom, or make Dad angry, or disappoint their youth pastor. In short, young adults fear that expressing religious doubt will lead to relational fallout.

Parents, assume that your children who are walking through that door have raised new faith questions, experienced doubt, and are formulating their own religious/spiritual ideas. Create space to talk about their evolving faith, and seek to understand them. They need your assurance that your relationship is secure. They need your understanding—not for you to fix them. If you don’t know what to say, try these conversation starters:

  • “What is something you don’t believe anymore that you think I still believe?”
  • “What is something you believe that you don’t think I believe?”
  • “How is your faith different now, compared to a year or six months ago?”
  • “What are you reading that’s inspiring you?”

2) They’re bringing home their politics … that look like people, not issues.

Considering current events, assume that politics will come up—or at least that they’ve been thinking and talking about politics away at school. While no demographic exclusively votes for one candidate or another, research revealed a deep divide in the way younger and older generations voted, and a majority of evangelicals voted in the same direction as older generations. Thus, there’s a chance parents and kids may not share the same political views.

For young adults, many of the topics raised in our current political climate are not about abstract issues, but about real people. Gays and immigrants are their friends. Ethnic and racial minorities share their stories, not statistics. Muslims are dormmates, not terrorists. Sexual assault is real on campus, not a topic of media debate. Violence is “local,” not just “international.” Joblessness is a family concern, not an unemployment rate. The university isn’t a bastion of liberalism as much as it is a community of diversity where students learn about others’ contexts and the complexity of our world.

Parents, remember that your kids have encountered, maybe for the first time, the “other” in ways that disrupt their views. Family political conversations don’t have the reputation of resolving well. But what if political conversations were opportunities for thoughtful discussion, prayer, and personal responsibility? If you don’t know where to start, try these conversation starters:

  • “How has your school tried to promote racial reconciliation?”
  • “Who has helped you understand [a political topic]?"
  • “How do we best help the poor and under-represented?”
  • “When is war just?”

The point isn’t to resolve these topics nor to cheer for a political party, but to create space to acknowledge the deep challenges our country and world face. If we can sidestep political cheering (or jeering), maybe we can find ways to pray together and remind our college students that their studies and work matter, and contribute to making our world a better place.

3) They’re bringing home their identities … that need attention and your reflection (not reaction).

Time away from home gives young adults a chance to discover what they truly value and who they truly want to become. This shift can occur when they recognize that their original interests and ambitions may have been more formed by parental expectations rather than their own internal convictions.

This doesn’t mean that parental encouragement is bad; it only means that at some point, young adults must own their own decisions and develop internal motivations. The vision young adults are creating for themselves includes their identities—this means everything from declaring a new major, a new environmentally conscious style, a new relationship, or a new summer priority. Arguments can ensue as parents’ view of their child and subsequent plans/behaviors no longer match this “different person” that is home for the holidays.

Recognize that your child, for the first time, may be taking a risk with you–naming their own desires, voicing their own dreams, introducing you to their new significant other. And in these moments, you have a choice. You can either shut them down and force them back into an image you have held for them, or you can seek to understand the image that your young adult children are learning to create for themselves. This doesn’t mean parents always like, affirm, or agree with the identities their kids are making for themselves. It does mean that parents stop trying to control their kids’ identities and learn to reflect back to them what they see.

If you don’t know what to say, try these conversation starters:

  • “Tell me about your switch in majors. What are you most interested in and what do you see yourself becoming?”
  • “Tell me about the person you hope to be.”
  • “Tell me more about this girl/boy you’re interested in. What do you appreciate about them? What do they appreciate about you?”
  • “Tell me about your new style. How does your new look express what’s important to you?”

4) They’re bringing home their wounds … that need empathy (not band aids).

Venturing out on one’s own also means that one is bound to make mistakes along the way. Many young adults experience the consequences of poor decisions, the pressure of competing commitments, and the stress of new challenges. These setbacks can often leave wounds that need attention.

Sometimes young adults need to express/confess their failures and be assured that they can be forgiven. Other times, they need medical help, counseling, or coaching. Parents can help their young adult children by creating spaces for them to let down their guard and to be honest about the hurts and difficulties they’ve experienced or are still facing.

Sometimes this is hard for young adults because they fear letting their parents down or want to prove that they are grown up. The reality is that we all need help and support. Perfection is never possible. If you don’t know what to say, try these conversation starters:

  • “What’s been the hardest part about going off to college?”
  • “Is there anything that you wish you could undo?”
  • “Everyone gets stuck sometimes. Have you ever felt that way?”
  • “How can I best support you?”

Your Turn

Parenting is an improvisational and courageous act. In theory, we know we can’t control our kids’ lives, fix their challenges, or create their futures. But sometimes out of our own spiritual doubts, worldview challenges, identity crises, and wounds, we try to control their situations.

Which brings us back to the laundry.

When you see that bag of laundry, you might be tempted to take it and clean it for them. But it’s their laundry to deal with, even in your home filled with resources. The laundry demands of your child an intentional act to pull out, sort, wash, and reorganize before they head back to school. While they have to do it, they don’t have to do it alone.

They need you, but in new ways. And you need them. Which may be the point. They’re coming home with laundry and all, seeking to connect with you in familiar and new ways. You can default back to old patterns (do their laundry, control their lives), or use this time to cultivate your relationship that supports them as they learn to make their way in this world.

They’re coming home with more than laundry. Are you ready?