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Parents & Families

A Time of Thanksgiving

A Time of Thanksgiving for You and Your College Student

When it comes to parenting college students, whether it’s Fall Break or the Thanksgiving holidays, that first trip home can be an emotional one, particularly when expectations collide. You imagined hours of long, lovely talks with your college student, just the two of you. Your student imagined sleeping away the stress of midterms, hanging with high school friends till 2 a.m. and oh yeah, there’s this giant sack of laundry…

The first semester of college is a life-changing, independence-building, scheduling-shifting, self-finding experience. And that means the first long trip home - whether it be for fall, Thanksgiving or winter break - can be a culture shock for students and their parents, too.

New home situations can also be more serious, as some students return amid a parental divorce, financial problems or family moves.

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. After hearing about other families, they may be wondering, “Why is my family the way it is?”

Families Change

We know that when students come home, they have a discerning eye and might point fingers. They might suddenly see their family in a different light. When your student leaves home, it’s like they’ve taken a snapshot of life. They expect to walk through the door and pick up right where they left off. They don’t expect anything to have changed in the family.

The constant is the family ties that bind you. You want to see them; they want to see you. You have love and concern for them; they have love and concern for you. But, how do all of you find an appropriate and respectful expression of those ties in a time-limited hectic holiday weekend while respecting 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. There is more awareness of your child’s desire 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.” Since this is the natural order of things, a greater portion of your life may focus beyond the needs of your children.

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. Remember, disagreement that leads to conflict isn’t bad. It gives all of you an opportunity to develop better communication that will lead to a more substantive relationship and closer bonds. You are modeling effective coping and problem solving skills when you see these moments as opportunities to learn.

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

Here’s what one of our students had to say about curfew: “I, for one, have grown more independent in the last four months, living so many miles from home. I understand that my parents are going to want to make sure I don’t go too crazy, that I don’t stay out too late. But I hope they realize I’ve grown up.”

  1. Expect your child to do a lot of sleeping. They may be coming straight off midterms and an all-nighter or two. Between intense studying, dorm social life and one’s own brain biology, their sleep schedule will have changed dramatically. Your child isn’t lazy when they sleep till noon the first few days of break – they are exhausted!
  2. Many freshman will spend a chunk of their vacation hanging out with high school friends and learning how those friendships have changed. The holidays are also host to a phenomenon that college counselors and student affairs officials like to call the “turkey drop” - or the “turkey dump” - when a college freshman returns home and breaks up with a high school sweetheart. Or, being home might prompt a breakup with someone back at college.

These are young, budding relationships. Students will come home for the holidays, and, well, long-distance relationships are very difficult. Despite the potential tensions and heartbreaks, going home for Thanksgiving means a much-needed break for most college students. It’s a chance to catch up on sleep, see old friends and eat meals that aren’t served cafeteria-style.

One last note: While some teens can’t wait to get back to college after the short Thanksgiving break, others, still haven’t quite acclimated to campus life. They may have battled homesickness or wept over faraway high school sweethearts. After four days nestled with family and old friends, eating their favorite foods and having someone else do their laundry, they may not want to go back to college. Offer love and reassurance, and emphasize how few weeks remain until winter break. Often, the time between Thanksgiving and winter break is a turning point in terms of settling in to the college routine.

For those of you who feel displaced and unimportant, as one student recently told me, “I’m really looking forward to going home. I think I’m realizing now how much I depend on [my parents], how much they comfort me and just how much I enjoy their company.”

Finally, a growing number of colleges are helping freshmen and their families navigate the fine art of learning to live together once again. We, at Washington College are hosting a seminar for freshman students called “Going Home: It will be different.” We will do our part on this end to help your student prepare for their Thanksgiving holiday at home!

Happy Thanksgiving!

Miranda Altman, Psy.D., LCSW-C, MSW

Director of Counseling at Washington College