This article appears in October Family magazine.
Communication with a child in college is a balancing act, with parents and kids trying to find a sweet spot for the ideal amount of engagement on both sides.
Text messaging, Skype, Snapchat, Instagram, email and phone calls provide plenty of ways to stay in touch, but finding the right balance is often very difficult, said F. Diane Barth, psychotherapist and psychoanalyst in private practice in New York City.
“College-aged kids want to be independent and should be — but they also still need parental guidance and support. Parents want to let their kids go, but also often know that their children are not quite ready for full independence,” said Barth, author of “I Know How You Feel: The Joy and Heartbreak of Friendship in Women’s Lives.”
College years are a time to transition from late adolescence to early adulthood.
“Independence doesn’t happen the minute you step onto a college campus. Like every other stage of life, it’s a progression,” Barth said. “It’s not black or white, and that’s what both parents and kids have to struggle with. It would be so much easier if everything was clear-cut and straightforward, but it’s not.”
Setting a routine
How often a college student checks in varies from family to family and changes over time, Barth said. In the early days of college transition a regular routine, such as checking in once a week, works for many families. Parents and college-age children also need to agree on a timeframe for how long is reasonable for a reply, and there needs to be a plan about what will happen if there isn’t a reply within that timeframe, Barth said.
“If a student rebels or doesn’t follow through on the agreed-on check-in, I always wonder what’s going on. Are the parents being too strict? Or, is the student hiding something? What’s extremely important is that the lines of communication stay open, and that parents listen to what their children are saying, both with words and with behaviors,” Barth said.
Texting is a good way to keep communication open between phone calls, but parents need to hear their student’s voice and see her face every so often.
“As one parent who is also a colleague used to say to me, ‘You need to be able to put your eyes on them.’ You can tell almost in a minute if they’re not getting enough sleep or not eating enough or not doing well in some way or another, and you can also tell if they look like they’re happy, content, healthy,” Barth said.
Reaping the rewards
College is a time for young adults to explore their independence — and too much communication can interfere with their growth and development.
“One of the hardest things for parents and college students to grasp is that the communication between them is starting to change,” Barth said.
If parents work to keep lines of communication open and make it clear that they are available to listen, to support, to give advice when appropriate, to respect the child and even to back off when necessary, they will develop a new type of connection — one that will be rewarding in new ways, Barth said.