Communicating with your Children in College

Here are a few tips on how to communicate with your children in college.

Out of all the adjustments you’ve made as a parent, sending your child off to college might be the biggest. For every stage in life there have been changes to your routines, from learning to bring toys with you everywhere in case things take longer than a toddler can handle, to knowing when to stay silent and let your tween just rant about their day, you’ve rolled with the punches of parenthood and now you’re ready to watch your baby go out on their own. Learning to make do with a slightly quieter house and a looser schedule is fun, but it comes with the tradeoff of having to set new boundaries and explore a new stage of life.

You may be used to talking to your child not just every day but throughout the day and when they go off to college you will have to adjust to a new normal regarding communication. Texting back and forth all day used to work fine, but now they’re not coming home for dinner and you text them and it’s days before they respond. It’s harrowing, really. Heading off these kinds of problems before they become a thing is preferable.

Starting the conversation

It is best to start talking about this before your child goes off to college. Let your child set the limits at the beginning. You can talk about your wants regarding communication but remember they are young adults now and need the ability to set their own boundaries. Try not to be combative as that won’t help one bit. Ask them if they prefer a set day for calls, how many texts they think is too many, and what their feelings are about emails.

Setting reasonable expectations

The first year of college isn’t just an adjustment for you, it’s a whole new world for them. A child who texted you every day after school to a dish may not have the time or interest to do that while away from home for the first time. Between a heavier load of homework, being expected to self-study, and all the social things that come along with college your child may seem to be pulling away when in reality they’re just busy and overwhelmed with their new freedom and responsibilities.

The absolute wrong thing to do is to demand more attention than they have to give. College is stressful enough, parents need to be a source of comfort, not another thing to do on an ever-growing task list.

Having a plan in place

It can be easy to freak out when you haven’t heard from your child in a few days. Are they okay? Are they just busy? Are they having trouble acclimating to their new college life? What do you do when they are out of pocket for too long?

Talk to your son or daughter before they leave for college about what to do when you get worried. Do they want you to come to see them if you sense they are struggling? Should you call the R.A. and do a wellness check? What about if you think they are becoming depressed or having a crisis? The answers to these questions are not only different for each family, but they are also different for each individual. Having these conversations early and rechecking often as things change can keep both of you from overstepping.

Remind your child that you just want to know they are okay, and they should be willing to set up a routine to help quell that anxiety whether it’s a weekly call or a daily text that says “I’m alive, I’m fine, I’m busy, I love you”.

Use your time wisely

Your child may not have time to tell you everything but they do have time to tell you some things. Think before you call about what you really need and want to know. Are you interested in how the class is going? Worried that they’re not making friends? Concerned that those 8 am classes aren’t being attended?

Don’t bombard your child with questions, pick just one or two for each call. Ask and then listen. The longer you let them talk the more you’ll find out. While learning about their life can be interesting and help you feel more connected, don’t forget they’re missing you too even if they don’t always act like it. Keep a running tally of what’s going on in your life and present the most useful picture to your child. Nobody wants to come home on the holidays to find out that their room has been turned into a gym without warning.

Knowing when to back off

College professors have libraries full of stories of parents who went too far, hung on too tight, and hovered too closely. While trying to get used to your child’s new independent life isn’t easy for any parent, it’s also not the time to get clingy. If you find that communication is becoming a bit more prickly, a bit less often and a lot more of a conflict than a conversation, it can be time to reassess your actions.

Calling the school except for in a true emergency is not only not recommended, you probably won’t get very far anyway. Between privacy laws regarding educational records and the staff’s frustration with helicopter parents, making yourself a nuisance isn’t actually going to help anyone.

Having another talk about boundaries could be in order. Remember that you need to have an open mind and try not to get defensive. Your son or daughter will tell you what they need and expect, your only job is to try to stick to the plan as much as possible.

While the whole communicating with your college student thing may seem like a minefield it’s not all that bad, once you get the hang of it. Learning and growing are on the menu for both you and your college-age child so be patient with each other, apologize often, and be ready to make changes if the original plan isn’t working out. By the time you get used to it, they’ll have graduated anyway and it will be time to learn a whole new thing, so give yourself some space to make mistakes because that will definitely happen. Remind your child that you love them and you’re trying, and remind yourself that they are trying too, and love you back.