Parents and children both benefit from establishing expectations for communication while a student is away. Have a conversation before your child goes away to school about how, and with what frequency, you will communicate going forward.
Students today are part of a new, digitally connected generation. Using email or text messaging is sometimes less intrusive, and frees your child from the obligation of taking your calls when he or she may be unable to speak freely.
How often (daily, weekly, monthly, on an as-needed basis) do you expect to hear from your child? How frequently does your child want to hear from you? It is very likely your child will want to communicate more frequently during the first few weeks of school – while there is a big adjustment to life and school and more of a chance that they’ll feel lonely.
Work out a plan that fits everyone’s needs. E-mail works well, especially given how different a student’s hours can be from his or her parents.
Rules and limits
After you’ve sorted out how you’ll communicate, tackle the subject matter by setting some basic guidelines:
- What decisions, challenges, choices or difficulties do you expect your child to handle (at least at first) on his/her own?
- On which decisions will your child seek your input?
- At what point and/or under what circumstances should your child ask for help?
- Under what circumstances would your child want a friend or roommate to call you or the counseling center?
If you notice significant changes in your child’s personality, don’t discount them as mere ‘growing pains.’ Feeling sad, lonely, overly excited or anxious can be part of the natural transition. They can also be signs that need attention. Here is information about how and when you might intervene and signs of emotional distress.
Productive phone calls
The calls are inevitable. Take, for example, the story of the father whose daughter calls him from 3,000 miles away when her car won’t start. When your child calls you for help, walk through the problem-solving process.
Have your child explain the problem; don’t interrupt.
Offer cues: "How can I be helpful? What do you think you should do? What options are you considering?"
Help your child evaluate their choices, but, as much as possible, don’t choose for them. If they still seem stuck, ask, ‘What do you imagine my advice would be?’ Assure them with supportive words like ‘I think you can handle this.’ At the same time, let them know that ‘No matter what, I’m here for you.’
You both are learning
Your child is experimenting with independent choices, but he or she still needs to know that you'll be there to discuss ordinary events and difficult issues alike. Students don't always know how much independence they can handle or how much support they will actually need. Be patient. Understand it will take time for everyone to find their footing in this evolving relationship dynamic, and design a new communications contract that works for the family.
Evaluate the plan and be flexible
Through your child’s first year in school, it is worthwhile to continuously consider whether the arrangements you’ve all agreed to about communication seem to be working for you and your child. If not, discuss your concerns and see whether you can agree on an adjustment in the plan.
Realize that both your and your child’s communication needs will very likely change through the course of your their time in college. It makes sense and is healthy to be flexible as they move along through their college years.