College senior Lisa Hamlett is looking forward to going home to Crossville, Tennessee, on Wednesday, but she hasn't always been so enthusiastic about spending Thanksgiving vacation with her parents.
A blowup over a broken curfew during her first year at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, is still fresh in her mind. "I'm used to being out on my own," says Hamlett, now 21, "I'm not a child."
Hamlett's mother, Betty, 60, has her own take on the freshman-year clash. "It was so tense it was unbelievable." She describes being caught in the middle as she tried to run interference between her feuding daughter and husband. "I felt resentful and I kept my feelings to myself."
Family tension is often a surprising development for students and their parents who reunite during the holidays.
"Thanksgiving is the worst time," says Marjorie Savage, director of the parent program at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. "It's a shock for kids because they haven't been on anyone's schedule. They often come home with an attitude."
Savage believes the Thanksgiving holiday comes at a point in the school year when students are feeling extreme pressure, having just finished midterm exams and facing finals. "They've been away on their own and it's the first time they've come home. They want their parents to see they're independent," says Savage.
The quest for independence under their parents' roof can lead to tension when students ask for the keys to the family car or make plans with friends and don't bother telling Mom and Dad.
Betty Hamlett admits her expectations of her time together with Lisa didn't match reality. "She was aloof. I asked her about it and she said she didn't like having to answer to us for everything."
Psychiatrist Charles Raison with the Emory School of Medicine suggests another part of the problem lies with Americans' expectations about staging a traditional family gathering. "Everything is under the microscope at the holidays," says Raison. "It's this perfect image we have that we fail to live up to that causes so much angst and unhappiness."
In the Hamletts' case, the tension led to a change in the family dynamic. Lisa says she doesn't get home very often these days, and when she does she tries to find middle ground with her parents. "It's not good when everybody is butting heads. I try to make it a compromise rather than a battle of wills."
Compromise and conversation are two of the suggestions Savage has for easing the tension.
She tells parents not to wait until the turkey is being carved to talk to their college-age teens about expectations at home regarding curfew and family traditions. "Do it beforehand on the phone or via e-mail and let them know if there are family dinners they need to mark on their calendar."
She also warns parents not to assume the student will be the same, and she admonishes students to give their parents a little notice if something big has changed. For instance, she says, "Don't let your mother know that you've become a vegetarian on Thanksgiving Day."
Family members will also want to know ahead of time if the student's appearance has changed. Tell them about "any new body piecings, tattoos or unusual hairstyles," she says.
Conversely, parents should be upfront about any changes at home, especially if the child's room has been converted into a sewing or workout room.
Savage tells parents to brace themselves. "They have this image that things will be exactly what it used to be." And usually it isn't.
Betty Hamlett concedes she learned the hard way. She has some advice for other parents: "Try to be as relaxed as you can. Don't try to pin your kid into a corner with requests or they will rebel."
She also tries to keep an open mind when she does see Lisa. "She's not the same kid I sent away to school. I had to grow a lot.
"It took me a year to realize I had to let go."