Embrace Growth and Change in a Student's First Year

College freshmen experience intense academic and social growth during fall semester.

By + More

There's an inside joke in higher education that students don't really return from Thanksgiving break. With only a few weeks left, many students mentally check out after being home for Thanksgiving and don't completely give it their all between now and winter break.

Are they physically on campus? You bet. Mentally? Not so much.

Part of this mental weariness, particularly for first year students, comes from the intense growth that happens during a student's fall semester. While academic responsibilities are often the focus of students' college efforts, their learning and development takes place all day, every day.

Late-night conversations with friends in the residence halls, cocurricular involvement, romantic relationships, family dynamics, and morphing high school friendships all contribute toward the education that a student earns during his or her college years.

For many first year students, their visit home over Thanksgiving is eye opening. Family dynamics have changed, high school friends seem different, relationships with siblings are different, and even interactions with the family pet may seem strained. A new sense of independence and identity can cause unexpected tension between college students and everyone back in their home environment.

[Learn what to expect from your holiday visits home.]

Of course, a desire for change and growth is what leads many students to college in the first place. Being patient as that change and growth manifests itself, however, can be challenging.

For students, it's important to set realistic expectations for themselves and their families. Wanting things to be just like they were before you left for home is perfectly understandable, but probably not a realistic expectation. Too many things have changed—both for good and bad—since you left for school.

Your high school friends have had their own experiences at school, independent from everyone in your usual circle of friends. Your siblings have had to adjust to life without you in the house and have learned, as harsh as it sounds, to function without you.

And while your parents have missed you, they've also had to adjust not only to having you gone but also to managing the family unit without your presence. Inserting yourself back into these usually familiar spheres undoubtedly will throw some of the balance they've established in your absence a bit off.

[Learn 5 ways to finish the semester strong.]

Similarly, for parents, the week after Thanksgiving can often be spent reflecting on what happened during your student's visit home. A new person may have shown up, both in physical appearance and in attitude. Your confident student may suddenly be struggling with whether or not he or she made the right choice of school.

Or your usually shy student may suddenly have a newfound confidence. Your student may also be making decisions that you don't totally agree with (or are completely surprised by), such as joining a fraternity or sorority or becoming a member of a club you've never heard about before.

Regardless, a parent's challenge in setting realistic expectations is not to look for the person their student was before he or she left but at the person he or she is becoming. Just like the awkward growth stages of your student's youth, growth during college comes in all kinds of strange shapes and sizes.

[Follow 4 steps to financially prepare your student for college.]

Supporting this growth and change, however foreign it may seem, is the best way to help your son or daughter truly become not only a student at college but also a student of themselves.

True, the process can be uncomfortable at times, but as your tired student finishes up the semester and comes home again for winter break, the best thing you can do is support his or her growth in all its funky glory.