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College-bound Kids? 10 Tips for Healthy Communication

10 ways to stay connected to your college kids through technology like Facebook and TwitterBy Barbara K. Hofer, Ph.D. and Abigail Sullivan Moore
Authors of The iConnected Parent

With cell phones, Skype, texting, email, Twitter, and Facebook as a way to stay connected to mom and dad, some college kids are beginning to wonder if they have actually left home at all. What happened to that famed independence college was supposed to offer?

If your child is headed off to college this fall, you might want to stop and think back to when you first left home. Most of the parents in our research studies describe a time when a weekly call was sufficient and their parents hardly knew what courses they were taking or much about their social lives. Not so long ago, this provided a chance for college kids to make decisions on their own, govern their own lives, seek help when needed from college professionals, and move gradually and responsibly into adult roles.

By contrast, many college students today describe an electronic tether that links them to home, and in some cases the leash is quite short. Our research, as reported in The iConnected Parent, shows that students leave home excited about the independence that lies ahead and expect to talk to parents weekly—but that the actual contact is 13.4 times a week on average, a rather startling difference.

Students told us of parents who collect their syllabi and call to remind them when papers are due, call to wake them up on exam days, and remind them to eat and sleep and do their laundry, just like they did at home. Most disturbingly, one in five students reported that their parents proof and edit their college papers—all too easy with “tracking changes.” Although many students often report a strong closeness to their parents, often they are not learning the very skills that parents are paying dearly for them to develop. In well-meaning attempts to help, parents may be undermining psychological and academic growth.

We found that they more frequently students talk to their parents, the less independent and autonomous students are. The more parents used these calls to regulate their kids’ behavior, the less satisfied students were with the college experience. By contrast, students who learned the skills of managing their own behavior and academic work had higher GPAs, were happier with college, and reported better relationships with their parents.

Here are our 10 tips for successful communication during the college years and the promotion of independence and competence:
1) Talk with your son or daughter about how often you will communicate before they leave home this fall. We found that too families are having this conversation and are simply falling into habits of talking several times a day, simply because they can. Talk about how much is enough and what’s the best form for communicating.

2) Allow your child space to initiate contact with you. The least happy students in our studies were those whose parents controlled the frequent calling.

3) Give dad the phone, and encourage him to call and text. Just over a quarter of the students in our studies want more contact with dad, and this was even more the case for daughters, who talk to dads the least. Cell phones, unlike landlines, typically mean the call goes person-to-person and not student-to-parents. Moms can hand off the phone, and dads can initiate contact.

4) Listen and reflect back, rather than rushing to solve. Most students want and need a sounding board more than they want to be told what to do.

5) Encourage problem-solving skills. Before you rush to call a dean for a roommate change for an unhappy kid, for example, consider how he or she might benefit from learning to navigate the uncomfortable terrain and work it out. Allow them to think aloud with you about how they might approach it.

6) Teach help-seeking skills and encourage the use of college resources. “What does your advisor think?” “Have you talked to the professor about how you did on the exam?” “Maybe the dorm’s resident adviser would have some ideas about how to deal with your roommate?” Learn the college’s resources by perusing the website—and make sure your child does the same.

7) Use non-controlling language—avoid “should”, “must”, “have to.” Psychological research supports that autonomy is a basic human need. No one likes feeling controlled. Think of the difference between “You should talk with the professor about your grade” and “Could it be helpful to meet with the professor?”

8) Defer judgment. Your kids will instead appreciate your support, encouragement, interest, warmth, and empathy.

9) Take an interest in their studies, but avoid trying to manage academic work. Ask about what interests them in their classes, what they enjoy reading, what their favorite classes are. I’ve also known parents who enjoy reading a paper now and then after it’s submitted, but it is problematic if parents are editing drafts. Know where to draw the line.

10) Celebrate developing independence! The progression toward adulthood may be lengthy, but the college experience can be an enormous contributor. Enjoy these steps in the process.

For more details see The iConnected Parent. Barbara K. Hofer, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology at Middlebury College. Abigail Sullivan Moore is a New York Times contributor reporting on educational trends among high school and college students.


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