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Thanksgiving Survival Guide for College Students

Family drama, making time for friends, staying on top of schoolwork. It can be a lot to handle over the holiday weekend. Here’s how to do it.

Headed home for Thanksgiving? If you’re picturing a blissful, stress-free weekend of home-cooked meals, catching up on z’s and enjoying free laundry service, you may want to check your expectations at the door. For most college students, and their families, those 4 days in November can be a minefield of explosive drama. “We all want that Norman Rockwell holiday,” says Laura Downs, a psychiatrist formerly on staff with the Student Counseling Center at Adelphi University and currently a program medical director at New York City’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. “But the truth is, those Rockwell paintings of the [perfectly] happy family gathered around the dining room table have very little to do with real life.”

Before you start second-guessing your visit home, know that there are things you can do to make sure your holiday weekend provides a chance to reconnect with family and friends and get the welcome break you’ve been anticipating. Whether it’s your first trip back as a college freshman or you’ve been down this road before, packing your suitcase with strategies to avoid missteps is key. Here’s how to gracefully handle whatever awaits your arrival.

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1. Initiate a conversation about house rules

You’ve been living independently for the last 3 months (or longer!), but the minute you walk through the front door of your childhood home, it’s like you never left. If you don’t want to fall back into old patterns of behavior—arguing with your parents about who clears the table or when you can borrow the car—be proactive. Remember, Thanksgiving may be about heaping plates of food, but it’s also a great opportunity to show your loved ones just how much you’ve matured in a short amount of time.

Initiate an up-front discussion about use of the family car, helping around the house, and curfews. In other words, don’t wait until you get that frantic text from your mom at 2 a.m., asking when you’re coming home.

And what if you and your parents don’t agree on the rules? There’s usually room to negotiate, says Downs. Explain why you need a later curfew (We aren’t picking Dan up from his job at Taco Bell until 11:30) or why you can’t help Mom in the kitchen tonight (I have to read 2 chapters and write a synopsis by Monday at 9 a.m.). If you want to be seen as an adult, act like one by leaving your emotions out of it. No stomping off, no yelling, no slamming doors. In the end, it may come down to “their house, their rules,” but if you handle yourself well, you may be able to strike a compromise.

2. Plan your time with family and friends

The tricky thing about Thanksgiving break is that it’s just 4 days. Factor in travel time to and from school, and your long weekend quickly shortens. Take this next idea to heart: You don’t need to see everyone this go-round. It’s perfectly reasonable to prioritize family and a few close buddies while making plans to see more of your hometown friends over the longer, just-around-the-corner winter break.

If you want to avoid an emotional tug-of-war with Mom and Dad (who really want you to be home when Aunt Carol and Uncle Phil arrive), work out a schedule before you even leave school. “Clearing a path and managing expectations from the beginning is so helpful,” says Downs, who recently had an opportunity to test this advice when her son, a freshman, came home for a long weekend. “He and I put together a schedule that gave him a good balance of family time and free time. I knew going in that we would not be having dinner with him on Friday because he had plans to see his high school friends, and he knew that he would not be able to go out on Saturday because we had a family activity. This kind of communication is so important.”

Pick a time to discuss plans when your parents are home and relaxed, then give everyone a chance to tick off their must-do’s and wanna-do’s. For example, if you’re with your family all day Thursday preparing for and enjoying the holiday meal, ask for the OK to meet friends once all the dishes are done and the house has been straightened up.

3. Remove yourself from uncomfortable conversations

From what you wear and how your hair is styled to who you are (or are not!) dating, you can bet everyone—family and friends included—will have something to say. It’s inevitable. Parents, relatives, and family friends are going to pepper you with questions about the college experience that may leave you feeling more than a little overwhelmed. Not only that, in the midst of a polarizing political season it’s likely that you’ll be breaking bread with family members or friends who don’t share the same political views.

It’s totally OK to remove yourself from any conversation that makes you feel uncomfortable. Don’t let your fear of being judged or misunderstood send you into an emotional tailspin. Instead, walk away. If Uncle Bob starts pestering you about job prospects, or raises his voice to make his policy points, tell him you’re needed in the kitchen or you have to check in with a study buddy, and excuse yourself. If your mom’s bridge partner has you cornered in a cringeworthy conversation about same-sex marriage, offer to refill her glass of apple cider.

If walking away isn’t an option, or if you prefer to stand your ground, there are a number of strategies you can use to keep the conversation moving, or change the subject. You could make a funny sign that says, “Our turkey requested a politics-free evening!” Or you could change the subject by telling a humorous story or suggesting going around the table, with everyone saying what they’re thankful for. You could try lightening the mood by putting on some holiday music.

While it can be difficult not to emotionally react to behavior or words that upset you, taking a beat (or a deep breath) to think about your next move can prevent things from escalating further. Practice some constructive self-talk. Remind yourself that your opinions matter, and don’t take criticism personally.

4. Share your study or productivity goals

Even if you don’t have any assignments over Thanksgiving break, final exams will be on you in a flash. Which means carving out time to study is a smart plan. And while no one (your professors included) expects you to spend 4 days holed up in your childhood bedroom cracking the books, keeping your motivation up for the home stretch is something to strive for.

Make sure to check your class syllabi before heading home, and pack whatever you need (a flash drive with notes, textbooks, etc.). Create a to-do list that sets a task or an amount of time you want to devote to each class over the weekend. Whether you’re doing 3 calc practice problems or spending 10 minutes a day reviewing your business psychology notes, having a goal will help keep you accountable.

Since holidays get busy, set aside your study time either early or late in the day. And let your family know what you’re up to so they don’t assume you’re texting with friends or watching Netflix behind closed doors. Sharing your productivity goals means they’ll not only honor that time but also hold you to it! Maintaining a consistent schedule, and studying a little bit each day, means you won’t be cramming on your last night home and will make the transition back to school a little easier.

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