This post was written by a very special guest blogger, UNC’s own Dr. Cynthia Bulik. When you’re finished reading, be sure to check out her bio below. Enjoy!
Some of you might already have gone back home since you left for college, or you may live close to home and see your families often. For others, Thanksgiving might be the first time you and your family will really lay eyes on each other since August. Without preparation and a good sense of humor, the first homecoming can be pretty dramatic for everyone in the family. College is a time when you really start consolidating who you are in the world and sometimes, that can be quite different from who your family is. The homecoming can be the first time the “new you” presents yourself on the old stage. If parents are expecting the same old little high school kid to come home, they can get quite the surprise. If you are expecting your family to make immediate adjustments to the new you, you can get quite frustrated. The excerpt below from my book The Woman in the Mirror: How to Stop Confusing What You Look Like with Who You Are, illustrates a rather dramatic homecoming from the perspective of a mother.
Ten pounds heavier, ten pounds lighter, dreds, pink hair, no hair, pierced cartilage, pierced tongue, pierced other unmentionable areas, hidden tats, not so hidden tats, new clothes, different food likes and dislikes, new styles, new words, new friends, new ideas, new found sexuality. The first homecoming after going away from college can be a shock to every family member.
After four months away, the phone calls and emails have gotten less frequent but mom figures it’s because her baby’s just so busy with college. Mom is looking forward to sitting around the breakfast table over coffee talking about college, new friends, classes, and activities. She’s stocked up on all of daughter’s favorite foods and planned her favorite pot roast dinner. Waiting at the bottom of the escalator at the airport, she sees someone who vaguely resembles her daughter. She recognizes the pink(ish) low tops, but wow those are very low riders. Is that a spiked leather belt? Hm, there’s a good amount of flesh showing in that middle section? Is that a thong? Mom’s heartbeat is escalating. Then she sees the pink spiked hair. Trying her best not to look shocked, she thinks, “What happened to my baby!” Mom smiles. They hug and mom sees the unicorn tattoo on her daughter’s shoulder. She thinks, “Oh my god, I made that skin and look what she did to it!” Then she hears the lisp, mom thinks “Oh, boy, it’s a tongue piercing!” And she remembers what a friend of hers said when her son’s girlfriend got her tongue pierced… “You know there’s only one reason to pierce a tongue!” Mom sends Dad a text from the baggage claim that just says, “Brace yourself!” There are no talks over coffee about college, and her (old) favorite foods that mom too care to buy never get eaten (the daughter is vegan now). The daughter basically locks herself in the bedroom and sleeps through most of the break.
As a college age child, you never know how your parents are going to react to changes to your identity—no matter how subtle or flamboyant. When you go home you might want to just be left alone. You might be tired from a strenuous semester. Starting college may have been an exhausting transformation and there is nothing more that you want to do than to retreat back to the comfort and safety of your old room—stuffed animals and all. One of the hardest things for kids to deal with is the comments that are made about their appearance or other changes to their personality or politics. “My you’ve put on a few pounds,” My you’ve lost weight,” “You need a haircut,” “Maybe you should put on a little more blush before Nana gets here,” “Watch your language!” “You voted for who?” Or the more subtle and indirect statements like, “Seems like the cafeteria has been treating you well,” or “Maybe you should go to the gym over break,” or “You don’t really need that second helping, dear.” These things make you want to run screaming out of the house and back to the dorm—but that can’t happen. So it is about finding a respectful way to navigate these conversations without starting World War III. One way of managing this is to have a list of neutral topics on hand to adeptly change the topic of conversation. We’ve just gone through an amazing season of politicians doing this when confronted with a question they don’t want to answer.
Reporter: “So Mr. X, what would your position on gay marriage be if it were your daughter?”
Mr. X: “That’s a fascinating question, but the important issue to focus on is whether the trees are the right size.”
You might not like these evasive techniques in a politician, but if used gently, they can serve you well at home. Here’s an example:
Mom: “Maybe you should try to take off a few pounds during break.”
You: “Thanks for your concern mom, but what I’d really like to talk about is a few questions about classes I am going to take next semester.” (Then introduce a neutral conversation, not one that gets into a tussle about what your major is going to be and whether you are going to be employable!)
Or, if you are comfortable being straight with your parents, your response could be:
You: “Dad, it’s uncomfortable for me when you talk about my weight, let’s change the topic to something a little less electric, how about those Panthers?”
The important thing is that you navigate the waters to have conversations with each other that are productive and enjoyable and don’t immediately catapult you back into the old roles that you had before you left home. This is not automatic. It takes practice and some trial and error to develop new and more mature communication styles between parents and children.
This might sound like the last thing you want to do, but, while you are home, do something nice for a family member. Help a younger sibling with college applications; offer to wash a car; or help with clean up without being asked. It’s fascinating how a spontaneous kind deed can cut through an otherwise tense atmosphere.
For your own wellbeing, focus on one thing that you value about being home (e.g., the privacy of the shower, your flat screen TV, your pet, your back yard, spending time with a favorite sibling) and allow yourself to enjoy it while you are there. There will be plusses and minuses to going back home, but don’t let the minuses erase your ability to enjoy the plusses.
Cynthia M. Bulik, PhD, FAED is Distinguished Professor of Eating Disorders, Department of Psychiatry University of North Carolina School of Medicine, Professor of Nutrition in the Gillings School of Global Public Health, and Director of the UNC Eating Disorders Program. She received her BA from the University of Notre Dame and her MA and PhD from the University of California, Berkeley. Dr. Bulik has written over 450 scientific papers and chapters on eating disorders, and seven books including The Woman in the Mirror: How to Stop Confusing What You Look Like with Who You Are. Her appearances include the Today Show, Good Morning America, CBS This Morning, CNN Morning, Katie, Dr. Oz, Dr. Phil, Rachael Ray. She has been featured in many publications including the New York Times, the Washington Post, USA Today, Newsweek, Time, and the US News and World Report. She is also the mother of three kids—two of whom are college age or beyond.