David Banks, Associated Press
CHICAGO — Like thousands of college students this time of year, Northwestern University freshman Jim Sannes can't wait to spend time at home this summer.
Sannes, 19, is looking forward to relaxing and "just being around the surroundings I grew up with, the same house I grew up with. It will be a nice feeling." He grew up in Kasson, Minn., 350 miles from Northwestern's campus in Evanston, Ill.
But after nine months away, campus and the place where college students grew up may seem worlds apart. Summer at home — so often eagerly awaited by the students, their parents and siblings — is often a mixed-up time of happy reunions, unexpected challenges and weird new family dynamics as not-quite adult kids return temporarily to the nest.
"They have a whole new world, filled with new friends and new ideas, new independence," and that sometimes clashes with things back home, said psychologist Karen Levin Coburn, a consultant at Washington University in St. Louis and author of "Letting Go: A Parent's Guide to Understanding the College Years."
Cindy Jez, a 55-year-old real estate manager in Richmond, Va., has gone through these transition summers several times with her two oldest boys, a junior and senior in college.
"I remember crying when they first went to college. Now I'm crying when they come home," she jokes.
Don't get her wrong — Jez loves having the boys back home. And yet, she also knows their return means piles of dirty laundry, a perennially lost TV remote, a disconnected security alarm to accommodate their late nights out, and jealousy from her two younger sons as the big men on campus suddenly get all the attention.
"The first time they come back there's always an adjustment period," Jez said. They're used to the freedom of college life, and "there are still boundaries at home."
"I try not to be a nag. I try to recognize that they're young adults," she says of sons Nolan, 20, and Cory, 22. "They need to have their own sense of responsibility. At the same time, I find myself constantly doing reminders. I'll send them texts: 'Picked up eight pairs of filthy socks in the family room last night.'"
"It's a balancing act" for everybody, Jez said.
Meryl Pearlstein, a New York City public relations executive and writer, experienced that last summer when her son, Evan, returned home after freshman year at the University of Vermont. Having him back home was a treat, and knowing he'd successfully navigated that first year away made Pearlstein and her husband proud. But with a younger son at home, "there are turf wars for the car, the living room, the TV and more," Pearlstein said.
"I do hate having World Wrestling Foundation on TV and finding snack wrappers in the living room." And when Evan would announce that he'd be home at 3 a.m., "We said, 'No you won't.' "
"There's a bit of give and take over the summer," Pearlstein said.
Times have changed since Coburn's book, now in its fifth printing, was first published, in 1988. Today's college freshmen weren't born, and talking with mom and dad while away at school often meant waiting in line for the pay phone in the dorm hallway.
"The whole concept of helicopter parents didn't exist," Coburn said. Now, with ubiquitous cell phones, texting, email, and Skype, families often communicate daily. That can create an illusion that things will be like they always were. Coburn says students and parents need to "do a reality check."
"For many parents, it's hard to let go of that parental role, even after nine months apart," Coburn said. "And kids used to leaving dorms a mess, staying up all night, need to realize that's not how it works in their parents' house."
Families should discuss expectations soon after their students arrive back home — things like curfews, household chores, family dinners, and spending money, so everyone is one the same page, Coburn said.
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