Being “home for the holidays” has a nice ring to it, but for many college students emerging into adulthood, these returns to or extra time in our old stomping grounds can hold some challenges or surprises. These may include moments when:

  • Your growing independence runs into expectations your parents may have for you, from time spent with the family to projects around the house or even the rub of questions like, “where are you going and when will you be home”?
  • Family circumstances and dynamics, you discover, have shifted since you were gone or , from changes in parents’ work or relationship to issues with siblings, and even illness and loss in your extended family.
  • Lots of questions come at you from family and relatives about your studies, “significant others,” and your future plans. What is sometimes hard is the absence of better questions that might make you feel more connected to others, like how you are growing in and experiencing your faith, what you are discovering about yourself, and your experience of other meaningful (non-romantic) relationships.
  • Tensions around political, religious or social issues arise. You’ve been growing in your understanding of the experiences of others different from you and of the world’s complexity generally, and your views may be in transition since the time you left home. This can make for some difficult and even heated discussions around the dinner table. (This time can be especially hard for those returning to families who don’t identify as Christians.)
  • Loneliness can well up as you discover that friends from home have not necessarily grown in the same directions that you have. Your reconnections with them, although perhaps a chance to catch up or relive memories, nevertheless feel a little thinner and less satisfying, especially if they are not Christians or haven’t had as much opportunity to grow in their faith.
  • Unhealthy or even dangerous conditions threaten your well-being and that of others. It is hard to acknowledge, but it is true that some will be returning to family situations where abuse, neglect, conflict, harmful influences and addictions are a daily reality. There are students who, given the choice, would stay at Biola and celebrate their holidays with their college or church family rather than return home.

The point is that being home for the holidays, even in the best circumstances, is not necessarily a “no-brainer.” However, some forethought and some intentionality can make this this a better season, even for commuters for whom returning to home is a daily rhythm.

I recommend two virtues in particular as you prepare for this time: empathy and assertiveness, both of which require some intentionality. (I’m grateful for Kathleen Doyle’s observations in her 2012 Chapel talk.)

Empathy is that virtue or capacity that allows you to imagine how another feels, to put yourself in another’s shoes. It is an important mark of adulthood. You might have heard it in your classes as the ability to “perspective-take.” It will be especially important as you re-enter your family dynamics, because to live wisely and harmoniously with others will require understanding their experience, their feelings and their expectations.

Assertiveness, in this context, is the virtue or capacity to know and intentionalize what is healthy and wise for you: relationally, spiritually, physically, and psychologically. This is a mark of the mature and intelligent adult. We cannot change others or even our conditions, but we can carve out some space for living a healthy life, and often our example of wisdom and self-care is a powerful example for others.

Here are some suggestions both for those returning home after a long stay at college and those commuters who have a little more family time than usual during the break.

  1. Call home in advance to get the low-down on what’s been happening there. Perhaps a parent or sibling can catch you up not only on the facts (“Uh, your sister has moved into your old room”) but also on the emotional climate (“Dad’s been a little stressed by your brother’s recent behavior”) so that you have a little sensitivity or empathy when you finally step in the door. For students who already live at home, this may mean collecting your own observations or asking a few more questions about what you’ve observed.
  2. Communicate with your family about your plans, expectations and hopes for the holidays and invite them to do the same so you both can adapt yourself to each other’s needs (empathy) and still get what you need (assertiveness).
  3. Think through the ways you’ve grown, changed, or even struggled this past semester, and what people will be safe, interested, and hospitable to listening and dialoguing with you. For the rest, what will you share with them that’s meaningful and true, but takes into account their capacity to receive you?
  4. Accept the fact that you cannot change people. Of course, you can dialogue with others and share your heart; however, some of the viewpoints you’ve come to hold have been the result of a lot of reading, interaction, prayer and brilliant teaching that is hard to deliver to others in the course of a conversation. When you get frustrated, have some empathy for and patience with the journeys of others, entrusting their growth to God (then move on to point #5!).
  5. Schedule time during the break with the people at home or even at a distance who are life-giving for you. If you experience some loneliness or conflict during the break, you will have someone lined up to check in and process this with (asserting your particular social needs).
  6. Continue or revive your spiritual rhythms. Although for many of you there will be much time spent on the sofa, with Netflix, popcorn, and possible drool-sleeping (and that’s ok!), the extra time that comes from a college break can be a good time to continue or revive some spiritual rhythms you’ve been wanting to practice more regularly. What would those be?
  7. Establish boundaries in difficult situations at home. At home, we often find ourselves drifting into old, accustomed dynamics and roles—not all of which are healthy. Abuse is not healthy, and it is wrong. Your parents’ marital problems are not your fault, though it’s a common mistake for children to feel so and feel that they must fix them. You now recognize that some past romantic partners pressured or harassed you; don’t let that happen again. Know what you are stepping into in all of these dynamics and talk with someone in advance who can help you erect healthy boundaries.
  8. . . . And soak it in. Where two or three or gathered, there will be problems! Hopefully they will be minor ones—pet peeves, miscommunication, and the usual intergenerational gaps. But don’t forget to soak up the good stuff. You’re home among people who love you.

It is our prayer that your holiday reunions are full of joy. Indeed, we most often see joy in the Scriptures on occasions of return, reunion and rediscovery (see this previous blog on biblical joy). May it be so for you and your families.

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