Welcome to our special section, Thrive on Campus, devoted to covering the urgent issue of mental health among college and university students from all angles. If you are a college student, we invite you to apply to be an Editor-at-Large, or to simply contribute (please tag your pieces ThriveOnCampus). We welcome faculty, clinicians, and graduates to contribute as well. Read more here.

You can feel it. The excitement is in the air. Thanksgiving break is coming!  It’s the first long weekend of the college calendar when most students come home, especially freshman.

 “I am so excited to go home for Thanksgiving break,” said a Syracuse University freshman. “Not that I don’t love my school or my program but it has really been a while since I’ve been home, seen my dogs and enjoyed the natural dynamic of my family.”

Thanksgiving weekend conversations can give parents a sense of whether their college student has found his or her niche. The break is a good time to discuss possible transfers, and what to do on winter break.

This can be a highly emotional time for freshman. Their relationships with hometown friends and family are changing, and they arrive back nostalgic for the creature comforts they miss from home, and unsure how their experience of college will compare with their peers.  Plus,this tends to be one of the most intense times of the semester as projects are due and final exams draw near.

Often, parents are looking to spending precious time with their teen and talking to them about their year so far, while the freshman are focused on spending time with their friends.

A parent of two students at University of Texas learned a lot over the years since her first one started there:  “Since I’ve had a child in college for a few years, I’ve learned to lower my expectations for Thanksgiving. Neither my eldest (a senior) nor my youngest (a freshman) has been home this semester and I know that while they’ll be happy to see us, they will probably spend as much time as they can with their friends. And when they’re not doing that, they’re likely to be catching up on sleep.”

 Here are some insights on how to navigate expectations and rules in your household, as yours and theirs are often not lined up.

Students who have been enjoying their freedom, making decisions without the watchful eye of parents do not want to be treated like children anymore.  A freshman from Wesleyan University told me, “I love the independence of being a college student, and really being the sole person in charge of my life.”  She continued, “I feel as though I am now less of my “parents’ daughter” and more of my own person.” 

There’s often a contrast between how the college student and parents define adult behavior; the late hours partying and visiting, dishes in the sink, clothes sprawled through the house and sleeping in until the afternoon do not feel adult to the parents. 

And of course it’s difficult for the parents to return to worrying about a teen who has the car until the wee hours.

The U.T. parent:  “I can’t wait to have them both back home, but one thing I’m not looking forward to is their late nights out. I won’t wait up (because that bugs them) but I probably won’t really sleep until everyone is back home and in for the night.”

Dr. Margaret Brady-Amoon, Associate Professor, Department of Professional Psychology and Family Therapy at Seton Hall University, emphasized the importance of “respectful communication” as the family roles start changing. Discussing expectations of the visit, including those rules of the household which are non-negotiable, is extremely helpful to having a successful visit.  Often, compromises can be found through conversations about other aspects of the visit.

Many parents find their feelings are hurt by the lack of time they get to spend with their freshman on Thanksgiving break.

A mom, whose freshman son will be coming home from S.U.N.Y. Binghamton, says that her son has always been very respectful.  They have talked about some of his expectations, including shopping for more winter clothes, seeing his high school friends, and his mom making him schnitzel. She is very excited to see him, as he is,“miserably missed” by she and her husband.

The U.T. parent shares: ”We now know to talk about expectations and about what our plans are ahead of time. That way they can plan around the big dinner and any family events. But we also don’t plan too much…”

Courtesy of the author

Transfer conversations

Thanksgiving break is a good time to discuss possible transfers. Sometimes, discussing transferring is a good barometer of a freshman’s adjustment process.

Young men can be less communicative than young women-this may be the first time since Parents Weekend that parents are hearing and seeing how their sons are doing.

Deb Cohen Ph.D., a psychologist at the University of Delaware Counseling center shared: “For some freshmen, thoughts of Thanksgiving break have kept them going through the difficult weeks of trying to adjust to college.  They may come home eager to talk with you about their desire to transfer.  Alternatively, they may feel so stressed they can’t manage to make transfer plans now.  Follow their lead as much as you can, but do help them to keep application deadlines in mind.”

Freshmen tend to gauge their comfort and happiness at college against their friends from high school. Some freshmen have happily found their way at college, which of course is a great relief to parents. However, others have fluctuating levels of contentment.

If transferring comes up:

  • Be supportive by hearing about their experiences and how they have tried to help themselves.
  • Listen. Don’t jump in and criticize or give strong advice.
  • Sometimes they need to release a lot of feelings that they have been holding in, and they may feel better after talking to you about it. 
  • Ask how they think you could help them find their way.
  • It’s crucial to understand that the amount of time varies for students to feel at home on the college terrain.

Some students feel like a failure, thinking they made the wrong decision. In general, students of this generation have been raised with routine instant gratification. It can take a combination of persistence and patience, coupled with lonely times, to find their niche and nurture new friendships. The Wesleyan student recognizes this struggle: “I will admit that it has been a bit difficult socially finding ‘my people’ on campus. There are just so many people and so many things to do that it can be hard finding groups of people immediately. I know it takes time though, so I’m not too stressed.”

Loneliness is a very common experience in any transition. Please share my Thrive on Campus  article with your student.

As Harlan Cohen writes in his popular book, The Naked Roommate: And 107 Other Issues You Might Run Into in College:

Know why you’re transferring. Otherwise you might just transfer the problem to another campus because the problem might just be you.

The decision to leave college may initially seem to be about distance or separation issues, however for some students other factors may be more central.

Present the idea of revisiting the transfer conversation during winter break. One important thing to know about transferring is that academic success will give them better options. Gently encourage your teen to continue working on finding his or her way, and getting involved in activities they enjoy.

What to do over your winter vacation

Speaking of winter break, now is the time to talk about it.

Students go back to a ton of work in December, and then they find winter break has arrived and they have no plans. December is a particularly bad time to discuss with them via phone calls, texts, and e-mails because the students have so much academic work to focus on.

Communicate openly about the expectations for winter break on both sides in advance:

  • How would they like to spend the time?
  • What will work for you and work for them?
  • Brainstorm together. Let your student come up with a plan that they are invested in whether it is by connecting with their previous employer, a favorite professor, alumni, friends or by networking.

Winter break is a terrific opportunity to explore experiences that will help build strengths, choose a major, aid in career direction or earn money. This can be achieved via many different avenues.

One is “shadowing” people who work in different careers to explore strengths, interests and careers.

They can also plant seeds for next summer’s job or internship.

They might also be happy to return to a high school job and earn some extra money over the break.

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More on Mental Health on Campus:

What Campus Mental Health Centers Are Doing to Keep Up With Student Need

If You’re a Student Who’s Struggling With Mental Health, These 7 Tips Will Help

The Hidden Stress of RAs in the Student Mental Health Crisis


  • Maureen Price Tillman

    L.C.S.W., Clinical Social Worker, College With Confidence LLC

    Maureen Price Tillman, L.C.S.W., received her Masters in Social Work from the University of Pennsylvania in 1975. She has practiced as an adolescent and adult psychotherapist in New Jersey for 40 years. Maureen created College with Confidence 15 years ago when she experienced an increase in students for therapy who had a crisis in college and needed to return home. The students were devastated and the parents were confused and extremely worried. Maureen decided to create a proactive college transition service for high school students, as well as help college students become emotionally stable and resilient and decide on the best path moving forward. Maureen has a private practice in Maplewood, New Jersey and with today's technology she is able to consult around the globe. Believing in proactive education, she created The New York Times Local College Corner, had a blog on the Huffington Post, and was recently published by Grown & Flown. Maureen has recently been interviewed for articles in The New York Times and featured in a number of publications for the National Association of Social Workers. You can follow her on her Facebook page, The College Corner.