At Oli, we approach holiday breaks as an opportunity for growth — and a barometer for areas of improvement.
For any adolescent or young adult, the prospect of returning home for the holidays can bring with it a swell of mixed emotions — joy and anticipation, to be sure, but stress and sometimes even sadness, as well. In order to help our students and families successfully navigate holiday breaks together, Oliverian faculty and therapists work to alleviate some of the pressure that surrounds visits home in order to re-frame holiday vacation as an opportunity for growth and self-discovery.
Here, Head of School Will Laughlin explains our approach:
Q: Why does Oliverian allow and encourage students to return home for the holidays, when many supportive or therapeutic boarding schools don’t?
A: There are a few reasons. One is to provide an opportunity for our students and their parents to practice for what’s next–i.e. to successfully navigate the real world of young adulthood. That real world is full of transitions! So a big part of these breaks is developing the skill and resilience necessary to make quick, frequent, successful transitions.
For parents, the holidays can serve as practice for the future reality of having your child come home as an adult guest instead of a dependent resident. That doesn’t always happen smoothly, resulting in the epidemic of “failure to launch,” and “boomerang kids.” Both terms describe the awkward hyper-dependence on parents that many young adults experience into their 20’s and even 30’s. For many of our students who have struggled with transitions in the past, the transition from school to home and back allows them to practice skills that will help them become confident, appropriately autonomous adults in the future.
Another reason why we have holiday breaks is to provide Oli families with a little laboratory to figure out how they’ve grown and what they still need to work on. The key is to debrief both the growth and the challenges of these visits with a trusted support–like your Oli counselor or team leader.
Q: How can families use the holidays to measure student growth and progress?
A: Holidays can give you a fixed point that you can use to evaluate where the family is and where the student is in terms of their comfort with themselves, their ability to self-regulate, and the quality of their relationship with their family. By comparing holidays to the previous year, they can be a helpful indicator for students and families of where they are and what they need.
Sometimes we have students return and say, “Break was fantastic, I’ve never had such a good time with my family.” And that’s cause for celebration. But sometimes, students say, “It was really stressful and hard.” And that’s not necessarily a bad vacation, because with the right support, those can be very productive holidays that act as a litmus test for what we need to work on.
One thing that families can expect — not only now but for the rest of their lives — is that holidays with family can take us back in time. We tend to revisit dynamics that we might have thought we’d outgrown. It’s important to normalize that and get used to it. It’s not an indicator of your true progress or place in life, it’s an indicator that these are very intimate relationships with a lot of history. Because of that, our buttons are exposed and easily pushed. It’s important to go into the holidays with that awareness and an openness to letting things unfold rather than falling prey to unrealistic expectations.
As challenging as breaks and holidays can be, they’re profoundly valuable in terms of preparing students and families for life after high school. We’re trying to move in the direction of joy, patiently and over time, rather than expecting that to happen instantly.
Q: How can students and families alleviate the pressure and anxieties associated with the holidays?
A: Our therapists sometimes work with students on visualization techniques leading up to the holidays. They might, for instance, work with the student to identify a relationship that’s historically triggering — maybe it’s a parent that’s critical or an annoying little brother. If you can trace the anxiety to a specific relationship and envision a situation you find triggering, you can go through a meditative process to envision a different response and a different outcome. This can have a powerful impact on self-regulation and rewriting old scripts.
That’s a key tactic of family systems therapy: simply choosing a different response to a familiar situation. It requires practice and intentionality, but it only requires one person doing it. Any member of the family has the opportunity to change a dysfunctional dynamic, whether or not the other person people cooperate. That doesn’t mean it will cure the family dysfunction, but it allows individual family members to be in charge of their own experience. And that’s very empowering.