Thanksgiving is often the first time new college students return home after being away at school. In anticipation, many parents and families imagine a joyful, idyllic reunion and students often look forward to good times and good food.
But neither generation may expect the conflicts, tension and hurt feelings that Thanksgiving break can bring if family members and students do not accept prior to the holiday that moving away to college impacts the family dynamic
Here are some tips to help families and students navigate these potentially tender times:
- Talk well before the holiday to open the lines of communication and set expectations. While both generations need to understand that things have changed, it is often parents and guardians who will need to drive the discussion in an open, exploratory way with a priority on listening.
- Discuss specifics such as curfews, family events that students must be present for and those they can miss if they want to get extra sleep or be with their friends. Set agreed upon boundaries regarding things like drinking, smoking and other activities that often spark family tensions. Remember, students have been independent and on their own for months.
- Remember that college is stressful, and students may have had a semester that has been more challenging than they expected. Allow room for students to express how it’s really going. Family members may want to hear nothing more than “it’s going great,” but it may not be. Ask open-ended questions and keep an eye out for students who are really struggling and may need help.
- Recognize that college is a time of development when students are establishing their own independent identity. This is a good thing and necessary for later success in an adult world. While this period may challenge the family dynamic, remember that students evolve over their time in college and what they may be like in their first year could be quite different from their senior year.
- Do not go too far with supporting independence. Make sure you do not leave students out of family plans assuming they will not be interested, while also leaving time for them to get together with friends whom they have missed while being away.
- For some families, the reunion at Thanksgiving can intensify family dynamics that were active before college. If your family experiences a resurgence of conflict around the holidays, it might be beneficial to schedule a consultation with a mental health professional. A neutral, outside perspective can often go a long way in making changes for the future.
Thanksgiving can be a delicate time, but with forethought, an open mind, and acceptance of change, families can grow together and enjoy the holiday.