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Parents & Families

A Time of Thanksgiving

A Time of Thanksgiving for You and Your College Student

Between the beginning of the semester and the first major holiday first year college students grow and change a great deal. You may find that a person different than the one you sent off in August comes home for the Thanksgiving (and future) holidays. And you and your family routines have probably changed, too. If you and your student plan together for your Thanksgiving visit, you’re more likely to have a positive, memorable holiday experience.

Students Change

For the past three months most first year students have been on their own to a greater degree than ever before. No curfews, no imposed study schedule, and no one to remind them when to go to bed or get up in the morning. They have been eating what they want to eat when they want to eat it. They have made their own decisions about where they are going, at what time of the day or night, and with whom.

They have met other students from different parts of the country and the world who have different family customs, different cultures and ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds and possibly different values. They may be wondering, “Why IS my family the way it is?” They may have become a bit less aware of the impact on their actions on others. Most of them are relatively healthy, happy and full of energy…and in greater control of their lives than when they left for college.

Families Change

Much of the time that you previously devoted to your student may have been shifted to other children in the family, to getting to know your spouse again, to activities of interest that you didn’t have time to pursue in recent years, or to concern about the economy and the recent elections. The pecking order for the bathroom in the morning, dibs on the leftovers in the fridge, possession of the remote control for the TV in the family room, and use of the car or rides for whom to where may all have changed. It’s even possible that there are 20 - 25 less dirty dishes, glasses and silverware decorating the family room, living room and bedrooms per week…and dirty clothes may actually be in the hamper!

There is, however, a continuing constant…family ties. You want to see them; they want to see you. You have love and concern for them; they have love and concern for you. How do all of you find an appropriate and respectful expression of those ties in a time limited and hectic holiday weekend while respecting the personal changes that have occurred for each of you?

People change; relationships change: Remind yourself that your relationship with your college student is evolving from a parent/child relationship to an adult relationship. Control is giving way to mutual respect for each others’ right to make his or her own meaningful decisions. Dependency becomes inter-dependency as together you make conscious choices about how you are going to include each other in your lives and what parts of each others’ lives is going to be “your own business.” A greater portion of your student’s life will not include you just as a greater portion of your life will focus beyond the needs of your children.

Plan realistically; don’t assume: Discuss your hopes and expectations for the holidays and inquire about theirs. Develop a tentative schedule for time together and time apart from each other. While they will want time with you and the extended family, they will also want time to renew relationships with home-town friends and acquaintances. They may want to visit places that carry high school memories for them. They may want to go shopping, with you and your credit card, of course. They may even want some “quiet time” with you! Remember that time together will be limited, and your energy may be limited, too.

There may be conflict; it’s best to deal with it rationally: Conflict is normal but can usually be resolved by sharing your expectations of each other and negotiating a compromise that all can live with. “Good families” have effective ways of resolving conflict. “Dysfunctional families” tend to “sweep it under the rug” or magnify it out of portion to its importance. For example, your student has been in charge of his or her comings and goings at college, but when she or he is at college, you aren’t awakened by the door opening at 2:30 AM. Talk about the impact of your student’s behavior on you without trying to control his or her behavior. This and other “house rules” conflicts can usually be resolved with good communication about each other’s plans and expectations. Healthy resolution of conflict is the substance of close personal bonds.

If you give some thought to these issues now, chances are that this Thanksgiving will be a holiday for your family to treasure.

Ed Fisher
Washington College Counseling Center