Collectively, our society can have a pretty rose-colored-glasses view of what it means to come home for the holidays. On billboards, in magazines, in television and movies, we see happy, glowing people, joyously reuniting with their families to celebrate the holiday season. In reality, though, coming home for the holidays may not always be easy or entirely positive, especially for young people.
A lot of attention is paid to how to prepare and support teens as they transition out of the home and into the next phase of their lives, be that to college, to the military, to full-time work, or any number of other life experiences. Unfortunately, conversations about how to support young people as they come back home (whatever “home” means for them) for the first time are quite a bit scarcer.
For the sake of space, I’m going to focus on some concerns that are often presented by college students returning home for winter break. Periods of transition can be challenging for anyone though, so I’m hopeful that there may be some useful pieces for you to chew on here even if the exact circumstances don’t fit for you.
The Realities of Coming Home
For many young adults, there is a lot that goes into the decision to move away from home. They may be looking for new adventures and opportunities, or they may be trying to put some much-needed distance between themselves and certain environments, situations, or people that no longer build them up. For these young people, in particular, it can be especially difficult to return to a place where they may no longer truly feel at home, for an often-extensive holiday break.
This transitional period can sometimes bring up feelings of stress, anxiety, depression, and an increase in tension between family members. That’s a lot to cope with! Though many of our country’s major holidays are now merely memories — that happened quickly, didn’t it?! — there is still a great deal of time off left for thousands of college students across the country. How can we best support the people in our lives who may need it?
Really, that’s a great first step. Be openly curious about how your loved one is doing. Are they enjoying their time off? What feels different for them now that they’re on break? What part(s) of their daily routine are they missing right now?
Keep an open mind, and be willing to hear the good, the bad, and the ugly. The key word is hear. Right now, having someone to listen without judgment may be enough.
Respect their Feelings
If I had a soapbox to climb up on, I would shout to the world: all feelings are valid! It doesn’t matter if they seem rational or appropriate from the outside; all feelings have value.
Everyone responds to situations differently, and these types of transitional periods are more difficult for some than for others. That’s ok. Our feelings tell us something about our experience; they clue us in to situations that are meaningful to us – both positive and negative. Hear the young person in your life out when they share their feelings with you, and let them know that there’s no wrong way to feel right now, or ever.
We’re the experts of our own experience. So while it may be tempting to offer advice (yes, I’ve said this before), try to hold off. Do what you can to validate your loved one’s experience and feelings, and ask them what they think would be useful.
Maybe they just need to vent or to hear that it’s alright to not be alright for a little while. Maybe they want to end their stay at home early and travel to visit a friend from school. Whatever it is, so long as they’re doing their best and aren’t hurting anyone, try to be encouraging and supportive. It can be hurtful to hear that someone you love may need a bit of distance from you (or your home or town or what have you), but your support and understanding are incredible gifts to give.
Ask for Help if you Need it
I would love to say that the feelings of sadness, isolation, or stress that young people feel during this time of year could always be remedied with a supportive talk and warm hug. Unfortunately, that wouldn’t be very accurate.
It’s possible that your loved one may find this stretch of time to be particularly challenging. Use your best judgment to determine if they may need extra support from a professional or a crisis line.
Look Towards Future Holidays
My last food for thought for you here is to be open to conversations about how breaks may look different next time. Talk with the young person in your life about what they feel comfortable with when they next plan to come home, how they want to spend their time off from school, and how you can best be supportive of that. This is a transition for you, too, and honest conversations can go a long way in helping these changes take place more smoothly.