Re-Entry to Family Life: Talking to Your Student When they Come Home from College

We can’t say we weren’t warned: so many materials we read and stories we hear tell us that when our students come home from a semester/year away at college they will have changed.  However,  those changes can still be surprising for families.  Students who have never shared a political opinion may suddenly expound on a myriad of issues. Students come and go as they wish, empowered by their freedom and experiences during the semester/year.  Some may be critical of family members. They may challenge religious beliefs or have deepened their own belief systems.  So how do we, as parents/family members, navigate these uncertain waters and talk to our students when they come home during the year on breaks and for the summer?

When students leave home and come to UMass Amherst, they are exposed to many new ideas and beliefs. For many students, UMass’ diversity is new and exciting.  They are in classes that encourage them to question their knowledge and previous assumptions and to think deeply about their own frameworks. It is an exciting time of growth and exploration.  And just like any time when they have been exposed to new ideas, they may want to discuss them and share their newfound opinions.  As a parent, family member, or caregiver, this can be many things: exciting, unsettling, down-right confusing.  It’s ok to feel these and other emotions. Just as they are transitioning into adulthood, so are we transitioning into the parents/caregivers of adults. Below are a few tips to help you navigate these tricky waters and maximize your holidays, summer and vacation times with your UMass Amherst student:

  • Try to build an environment of mutual respect. Stick to your beliefs and values.  However, a good rule of thumb is to agree to disagree and then move on.
  • Set boundaries for conversations.
    • Be willing to table discussions if they become too heated. It’s good to model stepping away from a conversation that has ceased to be productive.
    • Try to keep conversations on topic and avoid accusatory tones and personal attacks.
  • While we are on the topic of boundaries, it is reasonable to have expectations for curfews, chores, and staying in contact. Discuss these and other issues before they come up.  Figure out the ground rules early and try to be reasonable. Common courtesy is important in life and it really is learned in the home.
  • Listen to what your student has to say and ask why they have reached that conclusion. This is an opportunity to develop deeper understanding of each other.
  • Ask questions about the things you don’t understand, but try to ask them in a neutral way.
  • Sexuality is a very complex subject. Being open-minded and caring is essential.  Remember, your adult college student is still your child and still needs you.
  • Try to maintain an open heart and mind; your student may have spent a long time coming to this place.
  • Be prepared for your student’s opinion to change. Part of late adolescence is trying on many different hats until they figure out the one that fits the best.

By modeling respectful behavior, we are teaching our student how to engage in these types of conversations as adults. College is a time of learning and that learning goes way beyond the classroom. As parents, family members, or caregivers, we still have a lot to offer our students.

Sometimes the discussions we have with our students bring forth issues and feelings that are bigger than we anticipate.  If you are still struggling with your student’s new opinions, reach out to your friends or even a professional. Maintaining a strong relationship with your student is paramount.  Taking the time to listen and learn goes a very long way in building more grown-up relationships with our students. And when they return to school, they will know that even when you “agree to disagree,” you will always love and support them.

Melissa Goldman is a UMass Amherst Parent Advisory Council member, parent of a UMass Amherst Sophomore and a proud alumnus.