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When freshmen return home for Thanksgiving, worlds can collide

Many families of college freshman will be celebrating a belated
Thanksgiving this year — giving thanks that their son or daughter is back
at school, and all have survived the first visit home.

“Some parents envision their college children’s homecoming as a chance to have some quality family time with smarter, more appreciative high school kids,” says Randall Flanery, PhD, a father of 10 and associate professor of community and family medicine at Saint Louis University School of Medicine. “When the reality comes, they bash heads.”

Parents may be eager to resume life as it was before the freshman left home. They look forward to the return of their child who follows the household rules, doesn’t violate curfew and tells where she is going and with whom. They make plans to spend lots of time with their freshman, oblivious to the idea that Julie might have ideas of her own.

Conversely, the college student has grown accustomed to the independence of being able to do as he pleases without having to account for his whereabouts with anyone. It never crosses his mind that his behavior could present a problem. Besides, he views Thanksgiving break as a vacation from the rigors of study and wants to sleep in and see friends who also are home for the holidays.

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see how the fireworks can start, says Flanery.

“Families that can’t disagree and work things out have more difficulty when college life collides with home life. It’s important for both the parents and child to be flexible,” he says.

That in mind, Flanery has these ideas to help families give thanks for each other and enjoy their time together.

1. Check your assumptions at the gate. Mom shouldn’t assume Jennifer is going to want to spend all of Thanksgiving Day with the family when her friends also are home. Likewise, Jennifer shouldn’t assume she can punt on her family’s Thanksgiving dinner because she would rather be with her friends.

2. Make clear what you expect. If you want Jason to join the family for Thanksgiving dinner at 6 pm, say so. If Jason plans to join his friends for dessert at 9 pm, he should speak up, too.

3. Pick your battles. When your child goes out, you have a right to ask with whom he is going, where he will be and when he expects to be back. It’s about courtesy, not control. However, don’t try to impose the same curfew you did when he was in high school. “It won’t work,” Flanery says. “Your child views himself as being an independent adult with all the rights and privileges that go along with being an adult.”

4. Realize your child may have acquired some unpleasant habits, such as smoking or drinking, while she was away at school. Try not to be shocked if you see her freely doing those things at home. After all, she’s accustomed to doing them at school. However, if it bothers you to see her going to refrigerator for a beer, discuss it.

5. Do something symbolic to let your child know you see he is growing up. Let him bring a date to a family gathering. Talk about more adult things.

“For most families, coming back home for Thanksgiving is a positive experience,” Flanery says. “The child has a greater appreciation for what he had at home, like loving relationships, decent meals and clean clothes. And parents are glad to have their kids back in the nest. Kids usually do some growing up when they go off to college and most parents really like to see them becoming adults.”

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