Although we serve all college parents at all stages, many of our most devout readers are parents of freshman in college and, you may be picking up your son or daughter at the airport, train station or appointed car-pooling spot as he or she returns from school for the Thanksgiving holiday.  You probably will be feeling excited and a bit apprehensive. Excited, because you may not have seen your child for three months and a lot has happened since then. Apprehensive, because. . .see sentence above.

college-parents-of-america-thanksgiving-cartoonIn fact, it may take some getting used to, yet the truth is that your son or daughter is no longer a child, but a young adult. This is true not only in a legal sense but in many more ways than you probably care to count.

This is a post we have written about annually.  Thanksgiving can be difficult.  So here are some suggestions from parents:

  1. Let’s start at a very basic level: food. After all, your young adult is returning for a holiday that involves no gifts, no fireworks, no presidential tributes carried on a cable news channel at some Washington memorial. He or she is returning for a Thanksgiving feast.Yet just like it was a surprise to the turkey when it was “prepared” to go through the steps that placed it on your dining-room table, so might it be a surprise to you if your formerly carnivorous son or daughter takes a pass on the platter of meat and makes a plate of side-dishes only. He or she may have gone vegetarian at college, or even “vegan,” which means no dairy products either.  Hint:  Do not tease your young adult about this dietary choice, or you may end up being the Thanksgiving turkey yourself.
  2. Discuss Your Concern for their well-being: health:   At school, your student is unlikely to have access to your family doctor, dentist, dermatologist, and other health professionals.  Also, many families overlook mental health conversations, simply because it can be more difficult to discuss than physical health alone. If your student is overwhelmed then discuss a plan for dealing with the stress and anxiety that can be a normal part of college life.  Note, that most schools have convenient counseling and psychological programs on campus. If this is something you think you want to look into—or have transferred your previous therapy to a new provider on campus—considering discussing it.
  3. Reexamine house rules and curfews.  Your student has likely had complete freedom at college to go where they wanted, when they wanted, and no one waited up. Enforcing a curfew at home may not only be impossible, it also sends an unsettling message that you have so little faith in his ability to take care of himself. We suggest that you consider alternative ways to address your concern and specifically convey that the house rules are as much about respect for you as parents as it is for their safety.
  4. Think about the future. Together.  Dream together.  Ask your college student what they imagine their life becoming in 20 years. Next semester is to close and often college graduation to far away, but 20 years is a safe distance.  It also enables a college parent to recall what they were doing 20+ years ago when they likely became parents.  Share your family story as a mentor would, not just as a parent but as someone who wants the best for their entire life.
  5. Discuss Your Shared Values: Avoid A Political Argument: The 2016 Presidential election demonstrates how divided the nation is regarding politics. It even seems that many people take their politics more seriously than their family or shared values. We appeal to college parents to be careful – full of care when discussing politics.  Don’t force your opinions on your students without being prepared for it to appear disrespectful.  Ask questions and seek to understand.  Ask your student what they think will help heal a divided nation?  What can we do together to bring express our common values as a family?

To conclude, remember that part of the reason you have supported your son or daughter’s decision to go off to college was for him or her to learn about different points of view, different lifestyles, different everything. Remember that he or she is at a stage of life, just as you were once, where it is extremely “normal” behavior to challenge what have been, until now, “norms” of behavior.

Also, let’s face it, Thanksgiving Weekend is a short timeframe, and your son or daughter will be about to go back to a stressful period of fall final exams. He or she doesn’t need the added stress of you questioning “why the purple hair?” or “when did you suddenly decide that Donald Trump or Hilary Clinton were evil?”

As much as you are eager to spend time with your young adult, he or she is probably just as anxious to see some high-school friends, catch a movie, go to the mall or maybe even visit a former teacher or coach. Tell him or her upfront: “We’d love to see you tonight, but we totally understand if you want to see (fill-in-the-blank).”

college-parents-of-america-welcome-home-for-the-holidays-cartoonAt the same time, do set some expectations for attendance at tomorrow’s Thanksgiving dinner, whether it is at your house or dear old Aunt Millie’s. But show you are reasonable by suggesting a timeframe of togetherness. It is the rare returning college student who wants to watch the Macy’s Parade, the Detroit Lions lose again, have a five-hour supper, and then see the video of you and your spouse’s fall getaway vacation.

In short, if you are cool in your attitude about the way Thanksgiving is spent as a family, then you may build up some much-needed chits when it comes time for your young adult to visit again – for a much longer stretch – during the year-end holidays. Going easy on the chores – and the rip-roaring chortles – this weekend will pay dividends when you are all back together for the two or three (or even more) week-break that many schools provide in the period between end of exams and the start of the winter semester.

That’s when there will be plenty of time. Time for your son or daughter to fix the blinking 12:00 on the new DVD player, time to install the anti-spam software, time to clean the garage, time to get the oil change and, most important, time to talk.

And when he or she does talk, be sure to listen. It will be the best holiday gift you can provide.

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