As a therapist at the university counseling center, I have had the wonderful opportunity to get to know some students very personally. Students have come into the counseling center for a variety of different reasons; these problems can range anywhere from relationship break-ups and depression, to even psychosis. I feel much honored that students trust me with their private thoughts and feelings. I want to use the insights that I have gained from various students to help your family reconnect over this winter break.
Most students that I have talked to are really looking forward to going home for the winter break. When I ask them exactly what they are looking forward to during the break, I receive answers as diverse as the problems that they come in with. Some students are happy to just get a break from school, while others are excited to see their family and friends. Some, especially those who are away from home for the first time, are looking forward to returning to a sense of normalcy and familiarity. While college is a fun and exciting time, it can also be time of great stress. Many students are adjusting to a new town, new teachers, and new friends.
Developmentally, college students are making a transition from being adolescents to young adults. They arelearning to live on their own as well as define themselves as individuals. As you may imagine or recall, all of these changes may be very stressful.
As the student returns home from college, parents may notice a difference in him or her. While many students are enjoying their newfound freedoms, they may also want to reconnect to the comfort of being home. It is important to keep in mind that while they may want to settle back into old roles and routines, having tasted their independence, they may resist former rules or expectations. You can probably expect this dynamic to play out for a while, where the student may try to assert his or her independence and the parent may try to assert, or re-assert, their influence.
Regardless of the dynamic that plays out in your relationship, facilitating a supportive relationship can be important to reconnecting. Support can be provided in many forms, such as providing a ride to the mall or talking about how things have been at home while your son or daughter has been gone. It may mean sitting down and talking (without judgment) about the experiences of being a UO student. While you may not always agree with their decisions, it is important to validate feelings. One useful tool in making others feel understood is to use reflective listening; this is when you just reflect back the feelings that you hear (e.g. “it sound like breaking up with Jenny was very sad for you”). If people feel like you can understand them, then they are more likely to open up and listen to your points of view.
Most students adjust well to college life and learn to navigate expected challenges and speed-bumps. However, college is a time when some students may experience a clinically significant psychological problem. This may range anywhere from depression or anxiety to, in rare cases, schizophrenia. Therefore, I encourage you to pay attention to some red flags such as persistent sad mood, loss of appetite, decrease in weight, difficulty sleeping or concentrating, isolation, uncontrollable worrying, intense anger, or signs of substance use. If you do notice any of these, I would urge you to sit down and have an open conversation about your concerns. This can be facilitated by using lots of “I” language (e.g. “I noticed that you aren’t sleeping much lately and it makes me concerned”). Make room for the student to share his or her perspective. It may be that you are misreading the situation; on the other hand, you may have picked up on a deeper problem that would benefit from some professional attention.
I truly believe that the reconnecting process will be easier in a warm and supportive family atmosphere. While students returning home from college present some challenges, it also provides an opportunity for your family to create a more rewarding and enjoyable relationship. Please enjoy your time with your family (especially the ones returning from college) and have a wonderful holiday season.
By Ravil Sharma, M.S.(former Intern at the Counseling and Testing Center