Communicating with your college kid

Oct 2, 2012 at 4:00 p.m. ET

Your teenager has always been just a cell phone call or text away, but now that she’s off to college how often should you touch base?

It’s hard for some parents to adjust to their teenager being away, but this is the time to start giving her a little bit of breathing room.

Heading off to college is a big step for your child on the road to adulthood. It can also be a difficult transition time for parents, as they struggle to balance their child’s growing need for independence with their desire to be involved. Some parents are shocked at how little their child cares to interact once he’s on his own, while others are still in constant contact with their child. How can you stay in the loop about your child’s new life and still give him some breathing room?

Think quality, not quantity

When your child still lives at home, your day-to-day interactions are usually brief in nature — a text to say he’ll be late, a few moments at the dinner table talking about the difficult Algebra exam. It is easy to continue this pattern of sharing information in tidbits throughout the week. This is the perfect time to change your communication style with your child and actually get more out of fewer conversations. “Too much contact can actually send the unintended message that you don’t trust your student or that you think he or she lacks the ability to navigate life,” says Kay Kimball Gruder of Successful College Parenting.

Plan a time each week to chat with your student that works for both of you. Sunday evenings after dinner might work, or maybe your child prefers to chat on Wednesdays after his chemistry class. Knowing ahead of time that you will have time to chat without distractions makes it easier to limit your contact between phone calls.

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Be available and listen

We all do it — at times parenting is like being a motivational speaker giving a lecture to a one-person audience. Now that your child is experiencing new things she will make decisions on her own, some of which may not be the choice you would have made. Trial and error as a young adult is a critical step to becoming an independent thinker. While it may be difficult not to jump in and give your opinion, resist the urge unless asked.

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Stop before you text

Text messaging may be the greatest communication breakthrough yet — or the worst. Knowing that your teen is never separated from his phone may make it harder for you to break the constant contact cycle. When you are tempted to text your college student, stop and think about what your goal is. Is the purpose of your text to pass along some important information, or just to make yourself stop worrying?

Texting your student with reminders to pay the rent or schedule an appointment with her academic advisor tells her that she is not capable of handling life on her own. “For some students, too much contact can also prolong natural feelings of homesickness and prevent the development of important supportive relationships with peers, professors and advisors at the college or university,” says Gruder. Sending several texts throughout the day maintains a constant contact with home that hinders your child’s ability to detach from the family and form new bonds.

Sending your child to college is a big step for both of you. By pulling back just a bit and keeping the lines of communication open, you will form a new bond that carries you into the next phase of parenting.

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