Your New Communication Contract with Your College Student

By Joanna Nesbit 

Families today are part of a new, digitally connected generation. They can get in touch with each other at a moment’s notice. Although this is convenient and likely a comfort for you and your child, your young adult also needs space to adjust to their new environment. 

Discussing how and when you will stay in touch is helpful, even if it happens after your child has had a chance to settle in. Leaning on communication skills and being thoughtful about how to stay connected during this new phase of life, while supporting your child’s independence, reduces the likelihood of conflict. 

Set Guidelines

Before your student leaves home, set aside time to discuss everyone’s expectations. Keep in mind that this will likely need to be an ongoing conversation while your student is settling in. Your child’s preferences—and your own—may change with time. 

You might talk through things like: 

  • How often do you want to be in touch?
  • Do you want to have a set frequency or set time to connect? How might this change over time?
  • Will you primarily text, call, FaceTime, email, or use another mode of communication? 
  • Are there apps that might make it easier to stay in touch? 

After you’ve decided how you’ll communicate, consider some other situations that may come up while your child is away from home. While it might be difficult to plan for all of them, it can be helpful to think about some things ahead of time and talk about them as they arise.

  • What decisions, challenges, choices, or difficulties do you expect your student to handle on their own or with resources available at their school? Are there certain things you will help with at first, but eventually want your student to take ownership of?
  • When do you want your student to seek your input? If they’re paying the semester bill? Failing a class? Struggling emotionally?
  • At what point, or under what circumstances, should your student ask you for help?
  • Under what circumstances would you want your student, or their friend or roommate, to call you or the counseling center?

Follow Their Lead

Some students don’t want to tell their parents they’re texting too much, so it may be up to caregivers to figure it out. You likely already know how your student likes to communicate. Some don’t answer texts for days, others freely text multiple times a day, and some prefer phone calls. Watch for patterns and preferences to emerge as your child is settling in.

Think About What Is Supportive

When you want to reach out, think about whether your communication will be supportive. If they’re feeling homesick, a text here or there could be just the thing, but college officials also say too much contact from home can make the adjustment more difficult. 

If you’re paying the lion’s share of costs, it’s normal to worry about how your student is performing and focus on classes and grades, but that can add extra stress in an already stressful transition. 

Make a point of talking about other things, too, like clubs and other social activities as well as things that have nothing to do with college. Maybe your student has a good TV show or podcast recommendation, or simply wants to share a funny story about something that day. Sending uplifting or funny images, videos, or other links can be a way of staying in touch and connected without making too many demands on their attention.

Learn creative ways to stay in touch with your college student

Encourage and Empathize

Your student is likely coming to terms with newfound independence with a mix of excitement and worry. They are encountering situations and challenges they’ve never dealt with before and are learning how to cope. 

When it comes to more consequential decision-making—managing finances, seeking health care—it might make sense for you to offer guidance if your student reaches out for help. But with other kinds of situations—your student needs to have an uncomfortable talk with their roommate or needs to register for classes—it may be beneficial to take a backseat so they can sharpen their problem-solving skills.

Empathize and help your student evaluate their choices, but, as much as possible, don’t choose for them. If they still seem stuck, ask, “What do you think you should do? What options are you considering?” In these situations, it’s helpful to be more of a cheerleader on the sidelines than the coach in charge. So, encourage your student to think through things on their own while reminding them that you’re there to support and serve as a sounding board.

Pay Attention and Trust Your Gut

If you notice significant changes in your student’s mood, behavior, or personality, don’t discount them as mere growing pains. Feeling sad, lonely, overly excited, or anxious can be part of the natural transition, but those can also be signs that need attention. 

You can learn more about signs of emotional distress and how and when you might intervene. Remember: While changes in mental health can be tricky to spot from a distance, you know your child best. Listen to your instincts.

Get Help Now

If you or someone you know needs to talk to someone right now, text, call, or chat 988 for a free confidential conversation with a trained counselor 24/7. 

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

If this is a medical emergency or if there is immediate danger of harm, call 911 and explain that you need support for a mental health crisis.