From Melissa Sturm-Smith, Ph.D., Assoc. Provost for Academic Excellence and Student Success
As first-year college students return home for the holidays, what can parents expect their behavior to be like once they had a taste of freedom away from home?
The biggest thing I can recommend to parents is that the first semester of college brings something different for every student. This means that when students come home for the holidays, you could see anything from a drastic change in personality and outlook on life to no change at all (and anything in between)! Some students spend their first semester at college making friends and getting to know people who are very different from themselves. This could mean that your student is learning about new perspectives that he or she has never encountered before.
My advice is to engage your student in a conversation about the new things he or she has encountered thus far. The most important thing you can do is listen to what your student has to say and keep an open mind. Try not to judge or evaluate the merit of the thoughts and opinions your student brings to the discussion. At Drake, we want our first-year students to feel comfortable having in depth conversations with others where they feel confident in their ability to make meaningful contributions. Let your student know that you value his or her point of view - even if you disagree with it.
Another change that parents might see when their student comes home for the holidays is an increased need for independence. The first semester is a critical time in students' lives as they learn to balance the things that they need to do with the things that they want to do.
When your student arrives home, it is important to discuss your expectations thoroughly. Again, try to make this a conversation -- where you let your student know what your expectations are, but also give him or her the chance to contribute their expectations. If your expectations are different than your student's, you have opened the door for a thoughtful and mature conversation about compromise. Your student will appreciate being a part of the decision-making process in your family and will value the fact that you see him or her as an adult who is capable of making mature decisions.
The chance to go home for the holiday season is an exciting time for many students because they have the chance to see family and friends. They also expect that although they may have changed a lot since the beginning of the semester, things at home have stayed the same. Now you may be thinking "That is ridiculous. Of course things here have changed while my student was away!" If you can, try to keep things as close to how the student remembers them as possible. If you always spend the holidays at home and invite friends and family over, keep that tradition this year.
For some students, their worst nightmare coming home is that everything has changed. They may seem insulted that you did not include them in the "family decision" to change something, which will make them feel like they are no longer a part of the family. If you have made major changes in the family while your student was away (for example, a younger sibling is now "living" in the student's room), discuss this change with the student in a mature and rational way. This will help the student feel like he or she is still a valued member of the family.
Parents should not feel offended if a student refers to their college as "home." For example, toward the end of break, a student might mention that he or she can't wait to go "home" (meaning back to school). Most students spend nine months out of the year at school -- that is 75 percent of their year! They live and go to class with their peers. For many students, school has become another important support system that has a major impact on their lives. When students call school "home," they don't do it to purposely offend their parents and families. Parents should see this as a good sign -- that the student feels comfortable and encouraged at school. Calling school "home" probably means that the student is not only going to "make it" in college, but he or she will succeed!
Things to expect from returning first year students:
Increased independence from parents
Students are used to setting their own schedule every single day, including sleeping in as late as they want and going to bed whenever they want to.
Dependence on friends and peers
Students live with their friends at school and see them and hangout with them every single day. They will probably want to hang out outside of home a lot more.
Sleeping a lot
Students will be very tired from finals week and will probably just want to relax and sleep a lot when they first get back. Depending on the student they may want to stay at home for a lot of the first week to transition to getting back home.
Homesickness for Campus!
Toward the middle and end of break students will probably be ready to get back to campus and will be waiting to get back. Students will be a bit confused about what "home" is now.
This article first appeared as a guest blog on the Washington Post Campus Overload column in December 2010.