Freshman year is a time of profound transitions for your student. Even the joy of the holiday time can raise some issues that require parents and students to rethink old patterns. To help us sort things out, Fresh@News interviews Dr. Joan G. Whitney, Ph.D., Executive Director of the Holloway University Counseling Center, who will talk to us about what to expect.
Fresh@News: When students return home for winter break, what new things might parents expect from their 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.” Those students who have shared openly in the past will probably continue doing so. Those who were more guarded in sharing with parents may continue to be guarded, or may open up more. It is worthwhile for parents to engage their students in conversation about life at college.
Fresh@News: What kinds of personal habits may have changed?
Dr. Whitney: In general, parents may notice different sleep patterns. It is not uncommon for college students to be sleep-deprived, especially for the first few days. 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. Students’ sleeping schedules in college are often very different from 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.
Fresh@News: 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: Students have had a full semester of living on their own with only self-imposed limits. They may return home and expect that the rules that applied to them while in high school are no longer in effect. It is important to have a specific discussion in which the student and parents can agree about “guidelines” that make sense in light of the student’s new life stage.
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 may 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. Parents can reassure their student that this is normal. Parents can be helpful with an additional issue: friends may idealize their own college experience, leading your child to feel like “everyone is happier than I am.” “Maybe I should have gone to another college.” This is especially true if your child had a difficult first semester. You might remind your child that it is human nature to tell the “good news.” The “happy” friend may not be telling the whole story, which probably included some unspoken difficulties. And, everyone has their own timetable for adjusting to college. Reassure your child that (s) he is likely to feel more comfortable as time goes on.
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. At the same time, students may spend a surprising amount of time connecting with peers – new Villanova friends, or 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 are not getting much time with them. My advice is just to be patient. 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 good experience at Villanova, but it does not 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. 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 will never occur at Villanova and leave them discouraged. 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 listen, to be supportive and understanding. You do not need to “solve the problem.” While it is useful to offer encouragement, it is not helpful to minimize their distress. So it is best to accept their feelings, while providing encouragement that things probably will improve (because they will!). Assure them that such feelings are completely normal. In speaking with upperclassmen, I have found that it takes time to make solid connections with new friends, faculty, and staff at Villanova. Each student finds his or her own niche, 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 campus before New Years!
Fresh@News: What should parents do if they become concerned about the student's adjustment, or about depression, anxiety, or other concerns?
Dr. Whitney: Parents may call the University Counseling Center to consult with a psychologist. 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) Does it makes sense to consult a mental health professional while the student is home for the Christmas break. 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 information with parents. There is a specific, separate release required to share information about contact with a psychologist. Since parents know the students best, we appreciate the opportunity to help parents think through their concerns about the student. In many cases, we have not yet met with the student, but we can still be helpful.
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 adjusting to life at Villanova. 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 college experience and their general outlook. 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 www.villanova.edu/studentlife/counselingcenter/ . We wish you a joyous holiday, and an opportunity to take pride in your child’s ongoing growth.
Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to you and your family from Fresh@News!
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