mom on phone and computer with college student

Communicating with your college student: How much is too much or not enough?

Posted on October, 11, 2022 by

Here and gone, that’s the way I think of first-semester college students. For roughly 18 years, you knew who their friends were, and where they spent their days and (mostly) their nights.  You also knew how they were doing in school and, if necessary, helped manage their academics, especially if your student has learning issues such as ADHD.  You were prepared for your student to go away to college, but now that reality has set in, maybe not as much as you first thought and you realize that communicating with your college students isn’t as easy as you thought.

The amount of time college students communicate with parents has changed over the years.  When most parents were away at college, the only way to communicate was the telephone in the dorm hallway or by writing actual letters.  Now, well, we know it has changed dramatically.  Many experts say that speaking to your child once a week is optimal but many college students I work with are either constantly communicating, or, not at all.  Although there is no one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to connecting with your college student, there are some general guidelines:

For the student who texts and/or calls multiple times every day, you may be caught up in an enabling situation.  Although you may love maintaining this level of connection (or not) with your student, there are important reasons to set boundaries. This is the time when your child needs to develop independence and resilience.  If they tell you every time they hit a roadblock or have a setback, they are not developing their own problem-solving skills. Unless it really is an emergency, a simple, “I’m sure you’ll figure it out “ should suffice.  

Some students, especially ones with executive function difficulties or learning differences, may not communicate much at all.  They may have not done well in their first round of exams and think, “Now I know what to expect, I’ll do better next time” and keep it from you.  This is a critical turning point because they generally do not do better in the next round and by then it’s too late in the semester to recover. Alternatively, many college freshmen are just having way too much fun to do their work.  Whatever the reason, if you think your college student is avoiding you, they generally are, or maybe they have developed healthy problem-solving skills and are now better able to manage without your intervention.  Let’s hope the latter, more positive scenario is correct, but you may still want to connect with them more regularly.

Now that we’ve discussed the issues, how can you establish healthy communication boundaries with your child?  The best way is to discuss and decide how much, or how little you will be in contact should happen before they left for school by doing a student contract.  While that ship has already sailed (but keep in mind for next semester), there are ways to redirect and correct along the way.

1) Too Much Communication:

  • Set up specific communication days and times
  • Set boundaries, such as only reaching out when you are not at work
  • Establish what is and what is not an emergency
  • Do not try to solve their problems for them or offer advice, sometimes all you need to do is listen
  • Reinforce that they are capable of handling the situation

2) Not Enough Communication:

  • Set up mutually agreed upon days and times to talk
  • Text them pictures, funny videos of animals, or anything you think might make them smile with a short note like, “doesn’t this look like (insert pet’s name”)?
  • Verbalize that you will support them, no matter what
  • Reinforce that you trust them and know they will do their best

Sending a child off to college for the first time is a big adjustment for parents as well as students.  You may feel lonely and miss spending time with them. Here are a few quick reminders of things you may want to do but shouldn’t…

  • Make a surprise visit to see them at school
  • Call to wake them up each day
  • Send them reminders or give advice they didn’t ask for, or
  • Frequently ask them to come home 

Communicating trust, reinforcing independence, and letting your student know you have confidence in them will go a long way toward creating a balanced and supportive relationship with your college student. 

If you want to learn more about best communication practices with your student, how to create a student contract, or just need some advice, check out parent coaching at ACA.