How to Communicate Effectively With Your College Kid

Parents of college kids frequently ask me about how they can best communicate with their kids. I understand the difficulty and confusion inherent in this question. The transition from high school to college is difficult for both parents and children for a variety of reasons.

Parents and their high school kids are accustomed to communicating several times a day in person and via technology. When children move away to college, the question of how much communication is appropriate, and by which method, is confusing for kids and even moreso for parents. Parents want to allow their kids to become independent and comfortable on their own. At the same time, they want to check in and make sure that their children are doing well.

[Read: How You Can Prepare for a Child to Leave Home.]

Striking a balance is not easy. There are, however, a number of suggestions I’d make about frequency, types and quality of communication to make this transition more seamless and improve interactions:

First, establish expectations.

Talk about how often you’ll be in touch. Your kids should have a great deal of input into this decision. I typically find that the greater the buy-in from the kids, the happier they are. This is because they want and need to feel autonomous and independent. Keep in mind, though, that different kids will want more or less communication. So there is nothing amiss if your friend’s daughter wants to talk to her daily and your son wants to text two times per week.

Ask your kids if they want to set up a specific time (or times) each week to talk. Set up times and days. Most importantly, ask them if they would like to initiate the contact or if they prefer that you do the initiating.

I remember wanting to call my daughter daily when she first started college. It took great restraint, but I resisted. The problem with calling your children too frequently is that this may not only make it harder for them to separate from you but it may also give them the message that you are having a hard time, and this is certainly not something that you want to saddle your kids with, right? Also, calling too frequently may inadvertently give your kids the message that you doubt their ability to function without you.

So, once you make the schedule with your kids, stick to it, but do let them know that they, of course, are welcome to contact you whenever they like. In my experience, this model tends to work very well.

[Read: Talking With Your College Kid About Safe Sex.]

Second, discuss the preferred mode of communication.

Mostly, college kids prefer to text, but sometimes they may want to discuss their joys and struggles via a phone call or Facetime so that they can hear your voice and perhaps see you as well. If you haven’t used Facetime or Skype, make sure to familiarize yourself with these or other ways of communicating your kids prefer. If needed, have them show you how to use these before they leave for college. I am sure that they will be delighted to teach you with the promise that you won’t be Facetiming them constantly. It’s easy to want to do that. Resist. Again, be flexible and take cues from your child. A scheduled text from your son on a Sunday night may turn into a quick phone call. By being flexible, you’re helping your child become independent and you are also showing your trust and respect for your child’s decisions.

Third, let your child take the lead when you connect.

So, you have a planned call with your college kid and you’re wondering what to talk about, particularly how many questions to ask. Once again, take your cues from your child. Let her share information at her own pace. If you ask too many questions, I can assure you that your child will become irritated and be less inclined to want to continue the conversation. This will leave your child feeling nagged, and we all know that kids of this age dislike that more than anything.

Do a lot of listening. As time goes on, and the kids adjust to college life, you can start to ask them about friends, classes and what they are doing for fun. And, let them know about fun things in your life, like how the new dog is doing, your vacation and so on. As time passes, you may also want to send an occasional photo of the family pet, your younger son at baseball or maybe even a picture of something that you know your child will enjoy.

Perhaps you haven’t heard from your college student as frequently as you’d hoped. This could mean one of two things: The new college student might be busy and happily engaged in school or might be struggling and reluctant to contact you. In this case, I would suggest reaching out to get an idea of what is transpiring. It is after all your responsibility to know where your child stands in terms of mental health.

[See: How Your Child Can Maintain Mental Health Treatment When Moving to Campus.]

Most importantly, focus on doing the best you can with communication. This is a learning process for parents and college students and won’t always be seamless. So, don’t get too angry with yourself or your child over the occasional misstep.

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