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RETURN OF KIDS FROM COLLEGE CAN BE A JOLT

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College freshman Kirsten Smith nearly got her navel pierced.

"I was seriously considering it because a lot of my friends were doing it," said the Boca Raton teen, enrolled at the University of Florida. "But I changed my mind."Students away from home for the first time consider more than just their appearance. There's whom to be friends with, what time to come in, when to eat and where to go.

Adult decisions in a world with no curfew.

But just when their wings are starting to spread, they get hit with holiday break - the first big trip back to the nest. Parents also face that visit, which can be a jolt for all concerned.

"I hear parents say they feel rejected because their son or daughter would rather spend time with friends when they're home," said Tom Emigh, associate dean for student development at Palm Beach Atlantic College. "I'm also told that kids won't help around the house or that they upset the routine. We need to remember that parents change, too."

Some things, however, stay the same. Like worry.

"My mom never goes to sleep till I come in," said Smith, 18. "When I came home for Thanksgiving, I couldn't believe that that hadn't changed. I've been away all this time, but she still can't relax till she hears the door shut."

Preconceived notions also come into play.

"Students can't expect that time has stood still at home," said Karen Levin Coburn , author of "Letting Go: A Parents' Guide to Today's College Experience." "And parents can't expect kids not to broaden their horizons while they're away."

The bottom line, experts say, is respect on both sides. Diane and Dennis Dillon of Jupiter, for example, struck a compromise with their two oldest children - Kim, 18, a freshman at Florida State University, and Patrick, 21, a University of Florida junior.

"Our tradition for about the last seven years is to take our whole family to Steamboat Springs, Colo., for two weeks to go skiing," Diane Dillon said, referring to Christmas break. "But Patrick and Kim are going to fly back a couple days earlier to be with their friends for New Year's."

When families don't negotiate, tension can take its toll.

"It's important for parents to discuss potential problems so arguments don't burst out over the turkey," said Coburn, associate dean for student development at Washington University in St. Louis.

"They need to say, `I know you're away from home and you don't have a curfew, but let's sit down and talk about this.' What is it that the parents really want? If it's freedom from worry, then maybe the child can agree to call home at a certain time.

"It isn't always a control issue. Parents want the same things for their children as the children want. They want them to be successful, independent and happy. But each side sees different ways of getting there."

John Mariani of Juno Beach decided his son Andy, a Villanova University freshman, deserved a looser rein during Thanksgiving.

"We actually approached it from the view that he was entitled to a little more freedom because he'd proven himself," Mariani said. "He's very easygoing. He didn't feel a need to be any more independent."

But what about kids who do?

"We send students to college to learn how to think and reason and question," Emigh said. "Don't expect them to stop just because they're home. They're going through a time when everything - establishing identity, independence and intimacy - is up for grabs.

"Parents need to remember that what they see this Christmas when their son or daughter comes home is a snapshot. It's not the sum total of what he or she is going to be."

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Additional Information

How to maintain a cheerful nest

When college students come home, tension can mount. Here's how to maintain holiday cheer.

PARENTS SHOULD . . .

- Try to see their child in a new way. "I think what students want most from their parents is for them to acknowledge that they're becoming young adults," says author Karen Levin Coburn.

- Realize that students have spent months learning to think, reason and question. "Don't expect them to accept arbitrary rules," says educator Tom Emigh. - Sit down on Day No. 1, and discuss expectations. "Say, `Here are the family events I think it's most important for you to be at,' " Coburn advises. "For example, Christmas Eve between 7 and 10."

STUDENTS SHOULD . . .

- Act like the young adults they're becoming. "If you take out the family car, don't leave McDonald's wrappers in it," Coburn says. "And don't throw towels on the bathroom floor. That's not the behavior of an adult house guest."

- Recall that they're only going to be home for a couple of weeks max, so they should ease up on the power struggle.

- Keep in mind that their folks change, too. "Parents are on a developmental journey as much as their children are," Emigh says. - Cox News Service