I still remember how I felt coming home for Christmas break my freshman year. I was overwhelmed by new challenges and anxieties—living in an unfamiliar place, trying to form a new community, preparing for the future, etc. I needed someone to listen and encourage me to keep moving forward.

One night, my mom stayed up late, holding me close as I divulged the burdens that rested on my heart. I could only share these things because I knew my mom loved and supported me. While we didn’t always get along, I felt us grow closer after that conversation.

What your college kid needs on Christmas break

If you’re the parent of a college student, you might be wondering what’s on their heart when they come home for Christmas break. They’ve been spending time in a new environment, taking on new responsibilities, and forming new perspectives. You may have noticed their relational needs change because of it.

Just as your student has grown and changed, your relationship with them may change as well. Consider these five things your college kid needs on Christmas break.

1. Ask good questions and listen well.

My mom’s willingness to stay up late with me provided a safe environment to share my heart. She was caring and approachable. She helped me process what was on my mind, and I found peace in knowing I had her support.

As a parent, it’s important to seek out opportunities to have intentional conversations with your child. Ask them about the high and low points of their college experience—what they’re most excited about and most nervous for.

Their answers will tell you a lot about their passions, values, and perspectives. Over the years, you’ve observed their God-given personality and strengths. You’ve raised them, prayed for them, and seen them grow up into a young adult. As the two of you talk, you may catch a glimpse of how God plans to use their unique talents (Ephesians 2:10).

2. Identify and affirm the ways you’ve seen them grow.

When your college kid comes home for Christmas break, it will feel natural to pick up where you left off—for better or worse. Assume the best of your child rather than expecting them to be the same “kid” they were when they left. They’ve had opportunities to work on old habits and adopt new responsibilities. Without entirely surrendering old expectations, allow them space to voluntarily take out the trash or clean up after themselves.

You can encourage growth in your child by identifying ways they’ve already grown in the last few months. Lavish them with specific examples. Focus on the positive aspects of who they’ve become rather than their past behaviors.

3. Have open conversations about differences in faith and values.

According to Lifeway Research, 66% of college students will drop out of the church for at least a year. This hard reality makes gospel conversations especially important within the family context.

While it can sometimes be painful to discuss differences in faith and values, it’s important for you to create a safe space for your student to share their perspective and ask questions.

Use open-ended questions, like, “What are your thoughts on ___?” “I can see you’re passionate about ___. Tell me more about that.” Practice reflective listening, paraphrasing what you heard them say. To enhance your empathy, think back to your own moments of doubt and questioning before sharing your perspective.

It’s important to share gospel truths with your child—both the brokenness of humanity and redemption of Christ. Whether you’re telling them for the first or the hundredth time, you can trust God’s Word to work.

When all is said and done, you want your kid to remember you love them. Pray for discernment as you answer their questions. Ask God to work in their hearts and to surround them with a godly community.

4. Help them balance time with friends and family.

Your student likely has a lot of expectations for break. It can be overwhelming for them to choose who to give their time to. You can help by letting them know ahead of time which family events you’d like them to attend and showing grace when they have a schedule conflict.

Now that your child is older, you can invest in them as a friend as well. While we will always respect them as Mom and Dad, my brother and I are able to spend time with our parents doing activities we all enjoy, such as playing card games or walking in the woods together. These moments tend to draw out our parents’ stories from when they were our age.

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Whether your college kid is at home for Christmas break enjoying time with the family or out catching up with friends, know that you are still important to them. Don’t be afraid to ask for some of their time, but also respect their need to invest in friendships.

5. Reassure them they don’t need their entire life planned out.

Whether it be about prospective jobs or romantic interests, family and friends commonly inquire about college students’ future plans. It’s their way of celebrating the student’s next steps. But for those of us who are overachievers, we can feel like we need to have our whole lives planned out.

This is where God can use you to speak into your child’s life. The words, “I’m proud of you” sound the sweetest coming from a parent. You’ve been in the awkward limbo of young-adult life before and have come out on the other side. Share about a time when you saw God work providentially through the uncertainties of your life (Proverbs 3:5-6).

During the Thanksgiving break of my senior year, I pressured myself to decide about a master’s degree. My parents cheered me on and helped me think through every daunting life decision while sharing how God guided them at my age. The wisdom and reassurance of a parent is more powerful than you might think. 

So, when Your College Kid Comes Home for Christmas Break…

Do your best to make yourself available, celebrate their growth, and lovingly share the truth. Help them balance family and friend time and remind them they don’t have to figure everything out right away. Heat up a couple mugs of hot chocolate, put on your favorite Christmas movie, and let the bonding begin!

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Alex McMurray is a content writer for FamilyLife at Cru headquarters in Orlando. She graduated from Cedarville University with a bachelor’s degree in psychology and a concentration in child and family studies. She grew up in Slippery Rock, Pennsylvania with her parents and older brother. In her free time, she enjoys having deep conversations over coffee, playing board games, and adventuring outdoors.