By Terry Real
When college aged kids come home for the holidays, it can be a shock to everyone's system. After all, this is the first post-launch encounter for all parties. The kids have had a taste of adulthood, and parents are bumping into each other with one less child to hover around. Generally, everybody is really happy to see each other, but they are also trying to negotiate what the new relationship is supposed to look like.
There is a spectrum of what parents decide for their returning young adults. On the one end of the bell curve, a parent may take the attitude, "Look, you're on your own. Do whatever you want." On the other end there's the position that college is college and home is home, and when the kid is home, the old rules apply. Most families fall somewhere in the middle in which they declare, "We're assuming you're handling yourself responsibly, but when you're home you have to respect our sensibilities as your parents -- and specifically as your nervous parents."
No matter what end of the curve you're on, the job of all parents of kids aged 18-25 is simply to keep them alive -- the rest is gravy. No one gets through this period of time without being touched by the alcohol or drug-related death of a child in their social circle. You have to drill it into their heads again and again that they do not get into a car when someone is impaired, and that supersedes everything else.
Negotiating this can prove tension-filled depending on how strong the family taboo is about this subject. I recommend that you give them a safety pass in which you make it very clear that no matter what condition they are personally in, that if there is something bad going down or if they are faced with riding in a car with someone who is impaired that they can call home and they will be picked up without facing wrath or retribution for making that call. It should be made clear that while you do not approve of the child's own drinking or worse, above all you want them to be safe and know that you are offering them safe harbor.
Of course, you'd have to be a real 60s throw-back to openly allow your kids to drink, smoke pot or use drugs. However, if the choice is between castigating your child in the moment for underage drinking and getting home safely, it has to be the latter. Let them know that no matter where they are, if they send you an S.O.S. that you'll get them out of there, and they will not be punished for sending out the S.O.S.
When it comes to alcohol and drugs, that topic should have been broached in early high school. In the same way that you'd have to be in LaLa-Land to wait until high school to talk to your kids about sex, you should not have waited until college to discuss alcohol with them. The problem now is that the topic has to be re-negotiated. While the particular content of this discussion is discretionary, here are the things that should not vary.
First, the two parents have to sit down with each other and decide what their values are and what their policies are going to be. The policies have to be explicit. It's not a bad idea to share this information with the adult child before he or she comes home from school. Your three-point goal is: Agreement, Clarity and Communication.
Your policies cannot be murky. I can't tell you how many parents are spongy. They'll say, "I don't like you drinking when you come home." What does that mean? Too many parents are intimidated by their college-aged kids. They forget that they still have leverage; frankly the same leverage as they did before the kids left home.
The way you discipline a child of any age is to leverage that which makes the kid feel uncomfortable -- and you can't be afraid to make them uncomfortable. If you set a no drinking policy and a curfew at 2:00 a.m., and the kid shows up drunk at 6:00 a.m., let him know that you're stopping his pocket change and you want him to make it up to you by cleaning out the garage all day.
Of course starting in the early teen years, most parents learn that their kids go deaf when they wag their fingers in their faces or yell and huff and puff. This is especially true with adult children. The better approach is to stay on your side of the line and speak from what I call the "I" position. In any highly charged situation, forget trying to argue the facts. You're just bating them to argue back with their own interpretation of the facts, and you get no where.
A more winning approach will sound something like this: "I know at college you're free to stay out all night and drink, but I need you to understand that if you do that here, I'm going to be up all night with nightmares about you in a car accident, and I'll be a wreck at work the next day, and I just can't handle that. So, when you're home, I need you to abide by this policy if for no other reason than to give your poor dad a break." No one can argue with an "I" statement. Taking the "you" out of the argument turns the situation into a dialog, gives the kid some measure of adult respect and asks that he return the respect to you.
Next you want to reiterate the policy and make it clear that if they do not abide by it, they are choosing to lose their pocket change, use the car or whatever is your leverage. Not only will you be establishing appropriate boundaries with your adult child, but you'll be setting good examples for the remaining children at home.
Most of all, you want to set an atmosphere where everyone can just hang out and enjoy each other for the holiday. If you are first being an effective parenting team and setting respectful boundaries, everyone gets to just chill out and be themselves.