If you're the parent of a college student who's returning home for Thanksgiving, chances are you have a greatest-hits list of activities — face time with relatives, watching favorite movies — you can't wait to do together over the break.
Your child probably has one, too, but it consists of seeing friends, sleeping till noon and borrowing the car. A lot.
There are ways to find a happy medium.
Montclair resident Jessica Wolf recalls "counting the minutes" five years ago when her son Noah, a college freshman, returned for his first Thanksgiving since leaving home.
"I had a big fantasy of how we were going to hang out in the living room and play board games," says Wolf. "Instead, he dropped off his dirty laundry, turned on his heels and drove off. I didn't see him for the rest of the weekend, except for maybe two hours during Thanksgiving dinner. I was devastated."
Such scenarios are common, but that doesn't make them less frustrating or upsetting, says Dr. Andrew J. Lee, director of counseling and psychological services at Monmouth University in West Long Branch.
"[College] is a time of exploration, when students feel greater independence," he says. "They're trying to figure out who they are more fully. Parents think, 'Aliens abducted my child! He's a different person! ' but figuring out who they are is normal at this age."
Meanwhile, Lee says, young people have their own concerns about going back to the home where they grew up. "They wonder if there will be a lot of conflicts, and how they can talk to their parents about their expectations," he says.
And the Thanksgiving get-together isn't just a low-key visit. "Holidays are stressful for everyone," says Dr. Jennifer Tanner, a developmental psychologist in Mountain Lakes.
Grown children want to feel comfortable and be served, as they were when they were younger. They also want to be respected for their new independence — at a time when there are obligations with family and friends, and the schedule is fuller than usual.
"That's a cauldron of people wanting to get their needs met," she says.
To keep conflicts from bubbling up so you can enjoy your child's all too brief time at home, experts offer this advice.
Talk about expectations, and agree on house rules.Parents and college-age kids have different expectations of how they'll spend Thanksgiving.
He says that learning to think independently is especially valuable at a time when contemporary parents can be over-involved in their kids' decision-making.
A young man doesn't want to do his laundry.
Prepare for the inevitable.
There are easy things you can do to make your time together less contentious. If you're sure she'll have a lot of laundry, do yours in advance. If you suspect that he'll be parking his car in the driveway late and blocking you when you want to leave in the morning (and he's asleep), set out a bowl where he can place the keys to his car. If dirty dishes spark arguments, consider using paper plates for a few days.
And wait for it to get better. Basking Ridge native Matthew Cortigiani, 23, recalls enjoying the family Thanksgiving get-together more with each passing year of college. "As I spent more and more time away from home, I felt more and more personal responsibility for who I was as a person," he says. "I became more thankful for the time I got to spend with family. Seeing as I do not see them very often, the experience is that much more valuable."