Family Time and Holiday Stress for Students

Thanksgiving is next week . . . which means family time and holiday meals. But for high school seniors or first-year college students that can also mean different kinds of stress. Here are some tips about how to handle holiday-related stress for each student group.

When High School Seniors Are Applying to College

While it’s nice to have families and friends gathering again, holiday dinners can be difficult, or even downright unpleasant, for high school seniors when well-intentioned family members ask too many questions about the college application process. Parents and students should think ahead about how they want to respond to queries like “Where are you applying?”, “Which school is your top choice?” and “What did you write your essay about?”

Here are a few tips to help handle these moments:

  • Decide ahead of time if students want to share their college list or essay topic. If not, it’s fine to say, “I’m keeping my list a secret for now – I don’t want to tell anyone in case I jinx the decision” or “I’m considering a lot of different options and I’ll let you know when I know.”
  • Learn how to turn the tables. Ask the questioner where they went to college or what they wrote their essay about. Most people like to share their experiences (especially if they are a few years removed from the process!).
  • Use humor to diffuse tense moments. Rather than getting defensive, go on the offense with cheesy humor or silly jokes.
  • Hang out with the younger relatives. While teenagers are often chomping at the bit to be treated as adults, this may be one time they would rather be a “little kid.” Even if younger relatives are curious about the college process, conversations with them are likely to feel less like an interrogation!
  • Be honest. It’s okay to say “I’m taking a break from talking about college today.”


When College Students Come Home

Fast forward one year: Thanksgiving or the December holidays may be the first time first-year students will be home since they left for college. The high school senior who needed that parental shield at the holiday dinner table is now a more independent young adult. In fact, mental health experts caution that parents should be “prepared to welcome home a different person than the one [they] said goodbye to this fall.”

Here are a few parental “do’s” and “don’ts” that experts suggest can help keep the holidays fun for all.

  • Do: Set expectations for how the family will spend time together over Thanksgiving and the December holidays.
  • Do: Allow students to catch up on sleep.
  • Don’t expect them to follow their parents’ wake/sleep schedule.
  • Don’t monopolize their time. Parents miss their students, and students miss their parents and . . . they also want to see high school friends, hang out with siblings, play with the family pets, watch TV, or maybe even have some alone time that’s hard to get in a shared college dorm room.
  • Do discuss age-appropriate rules such as curfews, but remember that students have been largely setting their own rules in college.
  • Don’t remind them of their absence. Family dynamics change when a student goes away, whether it’s just the parents at home or parents and younger siblings. But students can be sensitive to feeling left out, even when they are having a great time at college.
  • Do expect students to help out at home—they are still a part of the family, not a guest.


Tis the season for spending time with the family. We all know the phrase “practice makes perfect.” Sometimes a little planning does too . . . and if not perfect at least a little less stressful and a lot more fun.