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Holiday Check-In: Navigating Big Conversations with Your College Student

Sweta Meininger on Unsplash

Christmas decorations are up, lists are coming together, and Christmas music rings through the stores. The holidays are fast approaching. It also means your college-age child is coming home, maybe for the first time all semester. You’re excited to have them home, but you may also be a little nervous about how your relationship is changing. Will they just sleep all day? Will they eat everything in sight? Is an outburst for independence on the way? Will they actually tell you how they are doing? Will they even talk to you?

These are all questions many parents wrestle with this time of year. You want to welcome your child home with open arms, but you also want to give them space to rest, see old friends, and continue to grow. As parents of growing adult children, we have to learn how to interact with them in new ways. At the same time, they’re still your children, and you still have a lot to offer them as they learn more of who they are.

So how do we navigate this new parenting territory?

I recommend focusing on three areas of conversation: their mission, their mates, and their Master. Seeking to gently learn about these three particulars will give you more information than you might realize. You don’t need to bombard them with all the questions at once. Getting caught up with your college kid’s life won’t happen instantly; it will take days if not weeks.

As we look into these three areas, think about how you might ask simple questions that will encourage your child to share openly. And if your child isn’t home for Christmas, you can use these practices the next time you talk on the phone or video chat.

Their Mission

It really is okay if your college student doesn’t know what they want to do long-term when they head off to college, or even as they enter their second or third year. It’s daunting to ask an 18-year-old to decide what they want to do the rest of their lives. The reality is this current generation will probably have jobs in multiple vocations. What’s comforting as a parent is knowing they’re surrounded by information and tools to equip them well in whatever vocation they choose.

Going off to college opens doors they might have never have thought about before. Maybe your child has always been interested in science but never knew what was out there. Or they love writing but were never told they were good enough. Or maybe they’re discovering their passion for justice and want to explore a life of seeking to make the world a better place.

College is a time for them to discover, to be creative, to try things out. Remind your child, in their conversations with you over the holidays, that they don’t have to have it all figured out. Just view this time as a brainstorming season and bounce ideas around.

And be sure to encourage them in the talents and unique gifts God has given them. Though they may not seem like they care about your opinion, it means so much to them.

Talking with your child about his or her mission is a great way to enter into conversation about what they’re thinking for the future—even if they’re still unsure. It’s a softer way of approaching a daunting question. Asking about their passions, dreams, and what they enjoy can help them process the information they are receiving. Remember, choices are wonderful, but they can also be paralyzing. They already feel the pressure of the future, so you want to enable them to tackle it, not be suffocated by it.

Their Mates

We become like those with whom we surround ourselves. Your community and friend group matters, especially in college.

Your student will learn how to develop and sustain friendships over the years and the miles during their time in college. They will see how unique things bring people together. They will grow in their ability to build community and cultivate relationships. But it can be scary and daunting. Instead of asking 1,000 questions, enter the conversation with your own story. Tell of your own friendships from their age and what you learned. Sharing your experiences with friends in those young-adult years—both the good and the bad—gives them tangible and relatable examples to filter their own experience.

Another way to know your child’s friends is to invite them over if they’re local, or even invite them to come to your home for part of the break if they live further afield. This will allow you to get to know them better in the comfort of your home.

Their Master

Finally, college is a time when your child’s faith is tested. They are away from home, have new influences, and may struggle with a new environment and new people. They’re no longer under your roof and have the responsibility to make decisions on their own. This includes going to church and spending time with the Lord. The reality is this may be the first time they “own” their faith. It’s intimidating and unknown. But it’s a process they have to go through. As a parent, you have the chance to ask them who or what is guiding their actions.

During the holiday break, you might find out your child doesn’t go to church, but they do attend a campus ministry regularly. Ask them all about that: what they have been learning, who they have met, what the director/campus minister is like. Campus ministry is no substitute for the local church body, but guilt won’t help your son or daughter find a church. They have to experience the feeling that something is missing. College students are always around their own age group, and soon they will realize they need more diverse friends who come from the local church.

The trick to the “who is your master?” conversation isn’t guilt or judgment. It must be filled with love and understanding, as your child is growing in their faith and into the person God desires them to be.

A way to help your child in this journey is to encourage them to take a leadership role on campus or participate in a service event or mission trip. I’ve found those experiences mature students and help them realize it’s not all about them. College can produce tunnel vision for some; as a parent, you can help bring light to the tunnel to reveal all that’s around them.

As you welcome your college student back home with hugs, kisses, and heaps of mashed potatoes, remember to be intentional in learning about who they’re becoming by asking about their mission, their mates, and their master. It’s exciting having your child back home. Enjoy it!

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