Dropping off a teenager at college for the first time can be emotional for parents and students, alike. But after weeks of living apart from family and experiencing newfound freedoms, students returning home may encounter new challenges. In the typical academic calendar, the first trip at home happens around Thanksgiving.
Randolph M. Lee ’66, director of Trinity’s Counseling and Wellness Center, and associate professor of psychology, talks about what to expect when a college student returns home for the first time. Lee teaches courses in the areas of psychotherapy theory, mind/body health, and clinical psychology, and conducts workshops and seminars in mindfulness and meditation. He has published in the areas of meditation and eating disorders.
What sorts of emotions do first-years typically experience when they arrive home?
One of the most common reactions to arriving at home for the first time since going to college is a sense of not being understood. Students typically and understandably do a great deal of growing even in the first couple of months, and the sense that parents don’t really understand them is common. At the same time, students are happy to be back in the family they have known and feel comfortable and relaxed. So there is often a mixture of emotions that can lead to misunderstandings, minor conflicts, and some conflict between wanting to be “left alone” to be their independent selves and also wanting to be back in the family context.
How can students navigate the return of “old rules,” which are not in place at college?
A: There is an easy tendency for parents to assume that some of the “old rules” still apply. There is often some disagreement between themselves and their students about these rules. The wisest course of action is to have some discussion about things like curfews, use of the family vehicle, recognizing parents have rights and concerns, but that their students have been living independent lives for several months. The best course of action is to try and negotiate this, talk about, and see their students as who they are now.
Is there stress related to events surrounding the holiday? It is a time when domestic students sometimes attend high school football games at their alma maters.
Most parents understand that, when they get home, students are going to want to spend time with her old high school friends, attend football games and be back in the environment which they left the spring before. This is understandable and natural, particularly since students at college have to go through a new socialization process and make new friends. The lure of getting back in touch with old friends in high school who knew them and with whom they were very close is both understandable and even desirable. Many college students feel that their “real friends” are the ones at home — at least when they return for Thanksgiving during their first year.
How can parents prepare for the first visit by their teenager?
The best way to prepare for the return of your students is to recognize that there will be changes. The students’ expectations, their sense of their own freedom, and their developmentally appropriate need to see themselves as separate and “grown-up” are very appropriate and healthy. All teenagers go through a point when they need to really rebel against their parents, and sometimes this happens supportively and peacefully, while other times it happens with much more fury. Obviously, parents need to respond as they feel fit, but parents may need to recognize that this developmental “breakaway” is inevitable and necessary and ultimately healthy.
What is the best way to respond to changes they may perceive in their student?
The best way to respond to changes is to address them in an open, nonthreatening, and non-confrontational way. They will inevitably see changes in their students’ attitudes and beliefs, and it’s perfectly appropriate to ask students about these changes, but the more they can do it in a conciliatory and engaging way, the more likely there is to be mutual understanding and some harmony. Parents and students both need to recognize that there are significant changes going on for both sides and the teen maturation process often involves some degree of conflict. This does not mean that the conflicts will be permanent. Conflicts are part of the normal process of growth and development.
What’s reasonable to expect in terms of the “old rules”?
Like so many other aspects of these issues, communication is the most important tool. Students will inevitably reject what they perceive as unreasonable rules that may have been appropriate in high school but are not now that they are an entirely different environment. At the same time, students need to recognize their parents have expectations and concerns that are important to pay attention to. Compromise is an important concept though it’s often difficult for both parents and students to achieve.
Students returning home for the first time since going away to college want to continue to be “totally free,” and parents understandably feel some need to try to impose restrictions and expectations. Some restrictions are appropriate for younger age students. For example, it’s perfectly appropriate for parent to say that they want their student home with the car by 1 a.m., even though students — pointing out that they are free to stay out all night at school — often resist. Again, compromise and discussion can go a long way even though they’re not always easily achievable. All parents tend to see their students as younger than they are, particularly when there have been some number of months when the student has been away. This is difficult for parents but understandable and inevitable. At some level parents always have a difficult time recognizing that their children are becoming adults. This often leads to a range of emotions, both good and bad, which require communication among all parties.