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College Students: Why Going Home for the Holidays Can Be Challenging

The holidays carry a lot of pressure and expectation, no matter what age you are. But, due to common developmental stages and changes, going home for the holidays can be tricky for a college student. While breaks from school are a welcome respite in a warm, restorative environment for some, we know that is not the case for all.

Independence & Reintegration

For many students going home for the holidays, they are returning to a home where they were previously less independent. After spending months away from home largely making their own decisions, it can be difficult to return to a space where they previously needed to ask permission, report in, or be available for family routines. This “reintegration” process can sometimes be eased if parents and their adult children are willing to talk through expectations for this time back together ahead of time to help avoid assumptions and misunderstandings.

Identity Development

It is extremely common for college students, who were already starting to develop an independent identity in high school, to continue this process in college. These late teen and early 20’s years are essential to an individual’s exploration of identity, career, interests, etc. The changes a student may go through during their college years can create some surprise, tension, or questioning by those who knew them growing up. It can be helpful for parents and students to remember that this is a fluid time of interest for many students and to work to keep conversations open and welcoming to maintain a positive relationship while the student works to solidify who they are.


One of the more difficult challenges for many students returning home is maintaining the connection to the “family” they created a college. Whether this is friendships or romantic relationships, these relationships have been an essential part of their support network in college, making it feel strange to be away from them or disconnected while home for the holidays. Both a student’s family at home and college “family” may desire time together and it will be important for parents and students to talk through expectations for their days at home.

Family Changes

While some students may return to a home environment that has not changed at all, it is also not uncommon for some families to change (sometimes drastically) once a student leaves home. For students whose families have altered in some way (i.e. moved, changed their previous room, parents have separated, etc.) it can be hard for the student to know where to go or what is expected of them in a situation they have not previously experienced. Students may benefit from focusing on the way they successfully adapted to college and that they can adapt to this new normal as well.

Unsafe or Uncomfortable Home Environments

Lastly, and perhaps most difficult to consider, is that some students do not have safe or comfortable homes to return to. Depending on the severity of the situation, it may make sense for a student to pursue holiday work hours to lessen their hours at home, consider what coping skills and support systems they have through these times, or even find a way not to return home and stay with someone else if the situation is that unsafe or housing is unavailable. College students, now as adults, may have more agency to determine where they stay or how they operate in that environment than they did when they were younger.

If you are a student, a parent of a college-aged student, or a staff or faculty who has the opportunity to talk with students about the challenges that sometimes come with reintegrating back home, there are ways to make this easier. Begin these conversations and planning now and hopefully, the challenges that sometimes come with going home can be anticipated and talked through, rather than surprising people. Because the holidays can already be a full and/or stressful time, these proactive measures may help reduce the stress associated with a student returning home from college.

Originally published November 22, 2022. Updated December 8, 2023 by Anne Rulo, Author, Speaker, Therapist. FB/IG/Twitter @annemrulo

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