Changing Family Dynamics in College

By Kelly Burch

Whatever your family makeup or living arrangement looked like in high school, college usually means a new level of independence. That often leads to changes in your family relationships, whether you’re going to school across the country or staying at home.  

Change is difficult. If you and your family already have a good relationship, that can continue. With open communication, you and your loved ones can have healthy, loving relationships—even if it looks a bit different than it did in the past. 

If you have challenging family relationships, leaving won’t necessarily solve problems or repair rifts, but going away to school may give you and your family a chance to gain some perspective while you’re apart and give you the distance that can help conflicts seem a little less overwhelming. 

Here’s what to know about navigating changing family dynamics when you go to college.

Change Is Normal

When you head off to college, your relationships with the people in your family are bound to change. Part of growing up is moving toward greater independence. That doesn’t mean you end relationships with your family, but the nature and balance of the relationships change, and it’s normal to want a bit more distance. You may also find yourself homesick even if you were counting the days until you could move away.

Talk About Expectations Ahead of Time

Having open conversations about changing dynamics can help avoid a lot of conflict. If your parents are helping you pay for school, for example, they may feel entitled to information about your grades. If that makes you uncomfortable, try to find a compromise, such as sharing your end-of-term grades but not reporting back after every test.

Thinking through some of the challenges in advance will help make the adjustment a little bit easier for you and your family. Talk to older siblings, cousins, or friends who have gone to college, and ask them what challenges they had during the transition. Ask them what they wish they’d done differently, and decide if that advice is a fit for you and your family.

Plan How You Will Communicate

The unknown is scary for everyone, so have conversations before you start college to address how you’ll stay connected with siblings, parents, and other close family members. Will it be texting or regular calls? What types of decisions will they be involved in, and what things will you handle on your own? You may need to adjust the plan once college actually starts, but having it in place will make everyone feel better during the transition.

Get more tips about creating communication guidelines with your family

Adapting Will Take Time

Be patient as you and your family members adjust to these changes, and keep the lines of communication open. Remember that your needs—and those of your family—will change during your first semester. You may need more frequent contact and support in the first few weeks when things are less familiar and you know fewer people than you will as the term progresses and you settle in. Dynamics will change again if you return home during school breaks.

Expect Some Bumps

There will be times during college when you and your family get frustrated with each other. That’s totally normal. The best thing to do is talk it out so you don’t keep making the same mistakes with each other. Start with these tips for having tough conversations with family.

Know It’s OK to Prioritize Yourself

Leaving your family may make you feel guilty or worried. Maybe you wonder who will translate mail for your mom, help your uncle pay for groceries, or make sure your younger siblings do their homework. Stepping back from your responsibilities at home may bring on a lot of emotion, but try to remember that this is a time to prioritize yourself and your education. By doing that, you’ll be better able to help your family in the future. Just give your family a head’s up if prioritizing yourself means scaling back on communication, since you don’t want them to worry.

Allow Yourself to Set Boundaries

Physical or emotional distance can help you see the difficult things about your family. If that happens, it’s healthy and helpful to set boundaries with your family members while you sort things out. You can also work to unpack family drama on your own, with the people you’re closest to, or with a counselor at school who would have an objective perspective. 

Our families—whatever form they take—often shape us. But during college, you have a chance to start discovering who you are with less input from your family. The transition to being an independent adult can be awkward and frustrating, so having open communication and remembering how much these people love you can be really supportive.

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