New Communication Guidelines for You and Your Family

By Joanna Nesbit

Now that you’re no longer living at home, it can be helpful to set a few expectations for communication while you’re away at school, knowing that things will likely change as you settle into a rhythm.

Talk through what kinds of communication options (call, text, email, FaceTime, WhatsApp, etc.) will be most comfortable for you and your family. For many students, texting is preferred because it’s less intrusive, and they can answer on their own time. But there are all kinds of ways to improve your communication before you step foot on campus. 

Here’s your guide to creating communication guidelines when you go to college.

Set a Frequency

Try to imagine what amount of communication feels right for you and will help your family feel confident that you’re settling in well. Ideally, this is a conversation you can have with your caregivers so that you both can share what would be helpful. Your communication will likely be more frequent in the beginning and then subside as you become more familiar with college life and your family feels less anxious about you settling in. 

Even if you’re a good communicator, some parents and caregivers can’t let go and will overdo the communication. Parents just want the best for you, but it’s also important that they give you the space to adjust, meet new people, and get a handle on life at college. 

Don’t be afraid to tell them what works for you. Some students love texting home; others, not so much. Hopefully, your caregivers will follow your lead. If you’re less into communicating, it might be helpful to suggest checking in once a week at a regular time.

Know What Types of Situations Require Communication

Stuff comes up at college, so talk about the different types of situations and decisions your family should know about, either before it happens or if you get in a jam. If you keep your parents in the loop about challenges you’re facing, they might be less likely to make worried guesses about how you’re doing and be more likely to support you in ways that work for you.  Things to think about: 

  • Are there certain kinds of expenses or purchases that you should check in about before buying? This is particularly important if they’re covering the expense through a shared credit card. 
  • Is your family helping out with personal expenses, or do they expect you to handle those? What happens if you run out of money? 
  • If you’re using your own credit card, what happens if you can’t pay the bill? 
  • If you leave campus for an overnight or some other kind of travel, do your parents/caregivers need or want to know?
  • If you get sick, would your family want to know? (Likely, yes!)
  • If you’re having an ongoing health issue, should you inform them? (Likely, yes!) 
  • What if you land in the hospital? Should your family know—even if it’s for a party gone wrong? (Likely, yes!)
  • Are there particular problems that your parents should be brought into (if you’re failing a course, for example)? (Likely, yes!)
  • Is there a circumstance for which you all agree your roommates should contact your family?

Share Ups and Downs

Some students feel extra pressure (from others or themselves) for the transition to go well, and they’re hesitant to let their family know if they’re having any problems. They don’t want to disappoint or let down their family in any way. Other times, it’s because students worry their family might overreact and try to fix the issue from afar when it’s not really a problem. 

Starting school can be a little lonely or rocky for many students. It’s OK to let your parents know about problems you might be having. If you live with a mental health condition or have a history of challenges like depression or anxiety, they might be paying close attention, whether you want them to or not. 

If you’re overly optimistic in your reports about school, they might wonder what’s really going on. On the flip side, if you’re overly negative, they might not be able to tell what’s a big issue and what’s a passing irritation unless you spell it out. 

It’s helpful for them to know that you just want to unload, or, yes, that you need help to manage the difficulty. Whichever it is, it’s better to address problems before they become bigger. But very likely, your best resources for handling a difficulty will be right on campus. 

Learn more about figuring out when to ask for help and how to get mental health support on campus.

Still, it’s OK to bounce ideas off your family for strategies to solve a problem. If your parents/caregivers went to college themselves, they might have an idea of which office can help you—or whether the solution is simply more time to get comfortable with college life. Sometimes, time solves a lot. Your family might be able to offer helpful insight.

Adjust as Needed

As you get comfortable on campus, consider whether the ground rules you’ve established feel right for everyone. Do you feel like you have enough or too much contact? Is your family comfortable with how much information they’re hearing from you? If needed, discuss any changes you feel would work better and make sure they’re OK with your family, too.

You’ll probably find that your needs for contact change throughout the first few months and up to the first year of school. That’s normal. In fact, don’t be afraid to push for change if your caregivers are still texting you too often during busy times like finals week. Hopefully, your family is open to shifting the arrangement and frequency with your needs. 

And if you need some backup to help them adjust to an approach that works for you, here’s a version of this article written for them!

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You can also contact the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741-741.

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