Freshmen coming home for Thanksgiving: It may not be as easy as it seems

How to make the most of that first extended trip home for your new college student

A Thanksgiving table

This week, all across the country, freshman students will return home for the Thanksgiving holiday, many for their first extended stay with their families since they made the big transition to college.

And as excited as those students, and their parents, are apt to be, both will have to face something they may not have anticipated: Both students and parents have changed in the few months since they said goodbye in front of their residence halls.

“For parents, the key question is going to be, ‘Who is this person living in my home?’” said Nicole Taylor, Arizona State University’s dean of students. “The last time they were home, they were living under parents’ rules and guidance. Now they’re independent people — albeit independent people who still want help with their laundry.”

Communication is key, said Taylor. Setting expectations on both sides helps prevent pitfalls and keeps the holiday a happy time instead of a minefield of bruised egos, hurt feelings and confusion over what the rules are.

Nicole Talyor, ASU's dean of students

Nicole Taylor

Question: What can parents expect to see when their students return home? And what are students thinking about their time back under their parents’ roof? 

Answer: Parents are probably remembering a certain rhythm, a certain method of communication, a certain experience of living with their now college-aged students. But it might not be exactly the same anymore. Students have been free to go to bed and get up when they please, to stay out as late as they want, to eat what they want when they want. They have also matured intellectually, socially and emotionally. That, combined with the passage of a few months of time when you’re not seeing each other every day, can lead to the perception that there is a big gap between parents and their students.

On the student side, I don’t even think they’re thinking about it. They’re probably just thinking, “I’m going to go home, I’m going to go to sleep, I’m going to get fed, I’m getting my clothes washed,” and they’re not actually thinking consciously about what it means to have been free and under your own rules and then return to the family home.

Q: So how should parents and students work to bridge that divide?

A: You have to open the lines of communication as early as possible. And you have to talk through the potential sticking points. Talk about what your expectations are as a parent. Does the old curfew still apply? Will they be allowed to sleep until noon? Are they back in the rotation for household chores? How much time are you going to spend as a family, and how much time will be dedicated to catching up with high school friends? Have these conversations. Approach them from the perspective of two adults talking to each other. Listen to and respect what your student wants, and trust them to understand what you want and need out of their time at home, too. Negotiate and compromise. If everyone’s expectations are clear, there’s less room for confusion or hurt feelings.

Here’s an example: A lot of students will come home wanting to sleep late. And they might really need the sleep; they probably aren’t sleeping enough at school. Sleep can be nurturing for them, and as parents, we are probably fine with that — if we know that that’s the deal. But if we haven’t talked about it we might be inclined to think that sleeping late is some how dismissive of family time or disrespectful of visiting relatives. Set expectations of what is an appropriate amount of sleep to balance everyone’s needs.

Q: Speaking of visiting family members, if the student has been away for a while there are probably going to be lots of demands on his or her time from lots of different people. Who gets dibs?

A: Well, again, it’s about talking it through. Students are going to want to meet up with their friends and find out how their college or work experiences are going. And Grandma and Grandpa are going to want to hear all about their classes and their roommates and everything else going on at school. Making sure everyone knows what is needed and expected goes a long way to prevent awkwardness at home.

Of particular importance is siblings. If there are younger siblings at home, communicate to your student what their siblings have been up to and what they saying about the visit. Treat this, again, like a conversation between adults — because it is. You can even put some of the onus on your student to help come up with some ideas. Say something like, “You know Johnny is really excited to spend time with you. Let's figure out when and how you’ll spend time with him so we can manage his expectations properly.”

Q: What about the mountains of questions parents are likely to want to ask their students? They probably want to know every little detail. What should be on or off limits?

A: It’s not a question so much of on or off limits. It’s about how the questions are phrased. Ask open-ended questions like what their favorite class is or who their favorite professor is and why. Be genuinely curious about their lives. If the questions come from a place of curiosity and aren’t phrased like a fact-finding mission, your student is more likely to open up. (By the way, I don’t think most parents intend for their questions to be like an interrogation, but sometimes it can feel that way to our students.)

Also, have those conversations in the midst of doing other activities. Rolling out the dough for an apple pie, or mashing the potatoes. Make it casual and breezy and take what they offer as far as information goes. It’ll be an ongoing conversation throughout the long weekend, not one marathon catch-up session where all of your student’s hopes and dreams and feelings are poured out onto the coffee table. 

And for students, let your parents in a little. They miss you terribly, they think about you all the time, and they want to know what your lives are like. You don’t have to share every little detail, but don’t shut down either. They excited for and proud of you, and they want to share in the fun you’re having at school. They deserve it!

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