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How to Communicate When Your Kid is in College

It’s a big adjustment when your child leaves for college. You’re used to talking face to face each day and sleeping under the same roof. Now, you have to find a new way of communicating that respects their growing independence while still providing guidance and support.

It’s also a big adjustment when they come back from college to attend online. They may seem to slide right back into their old, high school ways and roles. While it’s lovely to have them around, the home balance has shifted, and you may have new ways of living that don’t include making dinner every night or helping with homework, or doing all the shopping!

It ends up being an adjustment for you and your “child.” They don’t want you to nag them or judge them. If they were away, you wouldn’t know what they do or when they go to bed or anything else. So they aren’t so keen on studying back at home like they used to.

Right now, we are all searching for balance in these new but old relationships and patterns. Some kids are on campus, and some kids are home. You might have one of each, in fact. Let’s take a look at how we can communicate well, no matter which place they are.


Technology makes it much easier to stay in touch, but it can also make it harder to let go. When I was at college, I think I called home once a week; and I may have griped about that being too often. Today, some university surveys show that parents and students average about 13 contacts a week—I’m pretty sure that’s more than when your teen was in high school and living at home! So how do we find that balance that is good for all of us?

  1. Exercise restraint. While it’s natural to want to know what your child is doing and what their new friends are like, it’s important to step back. Let your teen decide how—and when— they want to engage with you. We’ve found that not making it a formal thing is best, then there’s no pressure. You can always change that and adapt if you never hear from them. Of course, you can still intervene if you have any serious concerns or the college reaches out to you.

  2. Provide coaching. In other words, don’t insert yourself into any issues. What will you do when your son or daughter contacts you about homesickness or roommate troubles? Instead of trying to solve their conflicts, be prepared to support them in finding their own answers. By this time, we definitely need to morph from parent to coach or mentor.

  3. Listen closely. While you’re pulling back on the advice track, you can still reassure your teen that you haven’t checked out by giving them your full attention. Listen, ask questions (to help, not to be nosy.) Take their lead and be enthusiastic and compassionate when they describe the ups and downs of college.

  4. Focus on learning. Education is about a lot more than grades, and they may need to hear that from you. Our kids are not likely to get the best grades in their first semester, and they may feel stressed out about that. Let them know that you’re proud of them for making an effort and enriching their minds with experiences as well as their classes.

  5. Send care packages. These days, you may send a digital gift card instead of shipping a box of cookies, but the message is the same. Treats and toiletries will be welcome gifts.

  6. Share updates. Your child may also appreciate news from home. Tell them about your work, home improvement projects, or what their siblings are doing. If you have a pet, send them lots of photos and cute videos. They are likely to say they miss your dog more than anyone else.

Life Back at Home

Your child will probably be returning home for holidays, or they may very well be home because of Covid. Be prepared for those new dynamics I mentioned. How can we adapt and help them to as well?

  1. Negotiate house rules. A college-age kid is going to want more freedom than before, and that’s totally reasonable. So if there are rules you need to change, talk about it. You, too, may have rules so that they respecting your needs. That might mean reaching an agreement about them waking up before noon and doing their own laundry. Or maybe they have to walk the dog while they’re back.

  2. Allow for downtime. Your teen will probably want plenty of time to study, rest, and hang out with high school friends—whether on zoom or socially distant. We all need socialization time as well as time alone, which is hard in lockdown. Let them know in advance if there is something special you want to do together so you can work it into your schedules.

  3. Master new technology. I’m not saying you have to join TikTok, but I will say that email is totally out and ancient now. Texting is great, and honestly, I use Snapchat all the time with my kids. Ask for a lesson while your kids are home so you can keep up.

  4. Embrace change. Your child may look and sound quite different now that they’ve been at college and living independently. You may have changed some yourself or adapted to your empty nest. Approach the “new” family from a place of curiosity and compassion. Stay positive and patient as they redefine their identity, and you all figure out your unique family dynamic.

No matter where your college student is right now, you can all discover and/or maintain healthy boundaries. The most important thing is your relationship and staying connected. That’s a lot easier to do when you give them their space as they figure out their college years. Now’s a great time to celebrate your child’s achievements and nurture your evolving relationship.

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