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[Fresh] Home for the Holidays

An interview with Dr. Joan G. Whitney, Ph.D. Director of University Counseling Center


Fresh@News: Most of our students are currently busy wrapping up the semester, studying for finals and getting ready to go home for the long semester break. What can parents expect as their son or daughter arrives home?


Dr. Whitney: First and foremost, parents should not be alarmed if their son or daughter arrives home and sleeps much more than in the past, especially for the first few days. It is not uncommon for students to be sleep-deprived during the last few weeks of classes and during finals. Often, they are running on empty by the time they complete all of their papers and final exams, and they may want to “catch up” on their sleep. In general, parents may notice different sleep patterns. Students’ sleeping schedules in college are often very different than what parents were used to seeing when their student was in high school, and these new habits will most likely continue once they are home for the holidays. Some parents complain that the student never seems to be present and awake in the house at the same time as the parents, with the student asleep in the morning, out with the high school friends in the evening and only back after the parents have gone to bed.


Fresh@News: Speaking of habits changing, what other new things might parents expect from their returning college student?


Dr. Whitney: Parents may notice subtle changes in their son or daughter. The first semester of college is often a time of great change and growth, not only in habits and lifestyle, but also in personal development. Students may be talking about different topics, have new interests, or simply seem to have matured in their time away from home. Parents can engage their students in conversations on such topics and interests to help bring together “home” and “college.” Students may also spend a great deal of time on the phone or using the computer to communicate with their friends back at Villanova. They have become accustomed to feeling very connected to them and may wish to continue this while they are home.


Fresh@News: You mentioned that students often spend their time at home with friends from high school. Do you have any advice to parents on what to expect in regards to these reunions?


Dr. Whitney: There are a few different issues that come up with students reuniting with friends from home. It is helpful for parents and the student to discuss expectations about reasonable times to return home, and how much the student is expected to inform the parents of when and where he or she will be for the evening. Parents must remember that the students have had a full semester of living on their own with fewer boundaries than they experienced before going to college. They may return home and expect that the rules that once applied to them while in high school are no longer in effect. It is important to recognize the student’s growing maturity by extending appropriate freedom. But, at the same time, parents must also feel comfortable with the situation. The best way to find a balance is to have a conversation about your (and their) expectations for the time they are home.


Fresh@News: Are there any other issues about getting together with old friends from high school?

Dr. Whitney: Although gathering with high school friends can serve as a source of comfort and familiarity, it can also create difficulties of its own. Some students may feel as though they or their friends have changed while away at school. The group dynamics among their old friends may have shifted a bit or could seem noticeably different. These are all normal occurrences, because all of the friends have had such different experiences over the last four months. So the student may feel disappointed by the long- anticipated reunions, and the students may want to talk to their parents about all of that. Conversations with old friends about their individual college experiences may also stir up some anxiety or questioning in your own child, especially if your child had a difficult semester. Among peers, students often only recount the good stories and accounts from their first semester. It may appear that everyone has made the successful transition into college life and loves their respective schools. This may be the case with some students, but certainly not with every student. Parents can remind their own children that they do not always hear the entire story from all of their friends and if they delve deeper, they may see that they are not alone in their struggles.


Fresh@News: How about the parents? Are there any issues that come up for the parents?


Dr. Whitney: Many of our students tell us how much they miss their families, and how much they want to be home. But, as I just said, sometimes it seems as though they want to spend all of their time either talking to their new Villanova friends or visiting with old high school friends. As parents, we sometimes look forward so much to having them back with us that we can be almost jealous that we aren’t getting much time with them. My advice is just to be patient. We have a long Christmas break this year, and usually after the initial flurry of catching up, there is plenty of time for the family as well.


Fresh@News: What are some of the other feelings a freshman might be experiencing during their time at home?


Dr. Whitney: As you have mentioned in some of your earlier interviews, most of our students have a pretty good experience at Villanova, but it doesn’t always happen all at once. So if a student has had a harder time with the transition, the semester break can be a difficult time, and some students will start to reflect on their experience and worry that they made a mistake in choosing Villanova. They may entertain the idea of transferring or taking time off from school. These feelings are normal and common. Often, students have not yet made connections to friends at Villanova or developed new college relationships as deep as the ones they had in high school. This may cause them to worry that such relationships may never occur at Villanova and leave them discouraged and hopeless. If a student is having these feelings, it is important that parents and family give the student the opportunity to talk about them. The best thing to do is to be supportive and understanding, offering words of encouragement that it might get easier during the second semester. Assure them that such feelings are completely normal. In speaking with upperclassmen, I have found that making solid connections with both friends and members of the community here takes time. Each student finds his or her own niche over time, but it often takes some work and experimentation. On the other hand, your student may have had such a positive experience during the first semester that he or she seems to be ready to pack the bags and head back to the Main Line before New Years!


Fresh@News: What should parents do if they become concerned about the student's adjustment, or about depression, anxiety, or other concerning issues?


Dr. Whitney: Parents may call the University Counseling Center to consult with a psychologist, or may schedule an in-person appointment, with or without the student. Of course, we cannot share confidential information about the student, unless the student signs a specific release permitting us to share. That can be confusing, because most students sign the "general" release" permitting the University to share with parents. There is a specific, separate release required to share information about contact with a psychologist.  In fact, in most cases, we have not met with the student. But we can still be helpful. We ask the parent to describe the nature of their concerns. We then give the parent a sense of: 1) Does the student sound worrisome to us, 2) How might parents address their concerns, 3) Whether it makes sense to consult a medical professional while the student is home for the Christmas break. Since parents know the students best, we appreciate the opportunity to help parents think through their concerns about the student.



Fresh@News: What other advice to you have for parents as they prepare for the arrival of their son or daughter?


Dr. Whitney: My best advice is to be patient and supportive. Freshmen are constantly in a state of transition and they are still learning and adjusting to life at Villanova. They may struggle in the process to find their place here and at home during this period. It is normal to feel as though your child has changed in their time away. As long as such changes are not drastic, there is no need to be alarmed. At times, you may need to be the voice of reassurance, comfort and reality. You may also need to engage your student in conversations that will help put your mind at ease about their overall well-being and happiness. Open communication with your student will be helpful in learning more about their time away from home and what their needs may be. And, of course, if you have any questions or concerns, please feel free to contact the University Counseling Center at 610) 519-4050 or visit us at http://www.villanova.edu/studentlife/counselingcenter/parent_info.htm.