How to Stay Connected to Your College Freshman

Female college student smiling and texting

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One of the most difficult things for parents sending their kids off to college is losing (and missing) that day-to-day interaction they have with their kids. So, unless your child has attended boarding school, expect the transition from high school to college to feel like a giant step.

Not only will your child no longer be living under your roof any longer, but it also can be very challenging losing that daily connection you were so used to. For most parents, the challenge then becomes balancing the goal of being there for their child while not being intrusive.

Empty Nest Syndrome

When your teen moves on to college, this represents a significant step toward adulthood. In fact, many parents see this transition as a symbolic end of childhood. As a result, it can be an emotional and challenging time. And even though you are excited about the possibilities that lie ahead for your future college student, you also may experience a sense of loss, too. Here are some of the things you might experience or feel.

Experiencing a Void

It is normal to experience a feeling of emptiness. After all, your teen's room is cleaned out and, in some cases, almost empty. There also is one less voice in the home that can often make it seem like the house is way too quiet.

It is not uncommon to feel unprepared for this emptiness or void you suddenly feel in your life. Even though you have diligently parented and prepared your child for this moment, there also is some longing mixed in with the joy as your young adult leaves the nest for the first time.

Remember, adjusting to your teen being gone will take some getting used to. And while your first reaction may be to call and text every day, you need to avoid doing that.

Feeling Excluded

Realizing that you are no longer privy to every aspect of your teen's life often leaves many parents feeling unneeded and left out. Not only do they no longer know the details of their child's whereabouts and activities, but their teen's life also is filled with people they do not know.

As a result, it is not uncommon for parents to feel like they are no longer in the loop and have somehow been pushed to the outside of their teen's circle.

Losing Control

After dropping their child off on campus, parents are faced with the fact that they no longer have a say in where they go, who they hang out with, and how they spend their time. This fact is often a hard pill for parents to swallow. Although they will still be offering their advice and suggestions, it is now up to their child to make the final decisions about what courses they will take, how much time they will spend studying, whether or not they will drink, and who they will hang out with. 

How to Cope

Transitioning from the day-to-day relationship you had while your child was living at home to being away at college can be challenging. Every day, you have to decide whether to initiate communication or wait for them to contact you. This is why it is best to establish some ground rules for communication that you both agree on before you drop your student off at college. Here are some ideas on how to cope with the changes you are experiencing:

  • Accept that your  job as a parent has changed: Ideally, you will not only begin to view your child as a young adult but communicate with them as one as well. College freshmen always need their parents, but the relationship will change. You also need to accept the fact that they will want more privacy in certain areas of their life. 
  • Remind them of your family's values on issues such as sex, drinking, cybersafety, and drugs before they head off to college. Ideally, you have been sharing these tips throughout their life, and you are simply reminding them of where you stand. If you refrain from preaching or criticizing when having important conversations, your young adult will benefit from hearing your views.
  • Redirect your time and energy when you are tempted to pick up the phone and call your college freshman. One way to do this is to think about interests, hobbies or other creative outlets that have been neglected while focusing your time and energy on raising your kids. 
  • Trust your student to problem-solve rather than rushing in to fix things for them. Remember, when your teen describes a crisis, it is going to sound much worse when you are miles apart. Just trust your gut in those situations. After all, you know your child best. If you feel like they are in trouble or need your help in a situation, do not be afraid to help, especially if you think they are struggling with depression, anxiety, or another mental health issue.
  • Embrace your role as a guide rather than as a decision-maker: You especially need to be sensitive to how you communicate educational goals and expectations, being careful not to force your student down a career path that they have no interest in. College students need the freedom to pursue their own interests. Never force your college student to follow your dreams. This is a time of self-discovery for your college student. Allow the process to unfold naturally without you dictating the path.
  • Establish your expectations before drop-off day: Make sure you are direct and to-the-point. For instance, if you want a weekly phone call, then be sure you say so. And, if you expect your student to come home during breaks instead of traveling with friends, establish that upfront. By communicating your expectations ahead of time, there will be less opportunity for disagreements.
  • Be patient with mistakes: Remember, you want to encourage and accept your student's ability to make independent decisions. But you also need to realize that they also might not be the best choices. If you realize that mistakes will happen along the way, there will be much less pressure to be perfect or meet certain standards. Remind yourself and your college freshman that making mistakes is part of life. Remember, learning from mistakes are important life lessons.

How to Stay Connected

Your parent-teen relationship will definitely go through some changes. But, if handled appropriately, the changes will result in an independent, responsible adult in the end. In the meantime, here are some ways in which parents can stay connected to their kids without infringing upon their child's space:

Negotiate How Often You Will Communicate

Before your teen heads off to college, it is important that you decide together how often you will communicate and with what method. Most parents opt for once-a-week communication with their new college student and more if the student feels they need to talk.

The goal is to allow your teen the freedom to communicate with you when they feel they need too, but also allow you the comfort and security of knowing you have a time set when you can connect with them. By establishing these guidelines ahead of time, you will be less tempted to call your college freshman every day. Additionally, your teen will realize that it is still important to check in with you on a regular basis.

Be Open to More Than Just Phone Calls

Some parents of college students enjoy using FaceTime or Skype to communicate with their college freshmen instead of a phone call. This way, they can see their teen's face complete with messy hair, rolling eyes, and goofy smiles. Just try not to nag or make negative comments if their appearance catches you off guard. Instead, just enjoy the time you have to share stories with one another.

Keep in mind, your college freshman will need to be considerate of their roommates. They also may feel embarrassed or be more reluctant to share if they feel like they have an audience. So, do not get disappointed if you do not get a lot of detailed information.

Texting Is Great for Quick Contact

Many parents have found that texting their student a quick question, sending a cute picture of the family pet, or uploading a quick video clip are great ways to let their college student know that they may be away at school but they still are an important part of the family.

The other great thing about texting is that it allows the teen some control over the communication. Not only are they not required to respond right away, but they also can ignore the text if they are in class or studying.

Send Love From Home

Every college kid loves to get packages and real mail. Whether you send their favorite treat with a note, a heartfelt letter, a cool notebook or an elaborate care package, your college student will greatly appreciate it. Plus, it may really brighten a stressful day.

Some parents even take time to bake their favorite treats and send them in a care package once a month. Just remember, if you plan to send food, you might want to wrap things individually, as it is common for students to share the wealth with their roommates and others.

Be Creative With Your Communication

Some parents have set up a private Facebook group where they share everything from photos and announcements to videos and inside jokes. It is a great place to keep all the personal family information in one place. And if your college student is missing home, they can always go to that page and scroll through the photos and watch the videos. Meanwhile, other parents have signed their teen up for monthly subscription services that send products like journals, candy, or makeup once a month.

Take Advantage of Parent's Weekend

This is a free invitation to visit your college freshman and one where you will likely be welcomed. So if you can manage it, make sure you take the time to spend the weekend on campus with your teen. It gives you something to look forward to after you drop them off and it gives them a chance to show you the campus and tell you all about their first few months.

Be Patient

Do not be offended if it is time for your weekly Skype visit and your teen just isn't in the mood. College can be stressful at times and there will be days when your teen is simply in a bad mood. Try not to take it personally and make the most of the conversation. If things are just not going well, you can always ask if your teen wants to talk tomorrow instead.

Do Not Go Too Far

While it is true that you miss your teen and you just want to hear their voice, be sure you are not overstepping any boundaries when you do communicate. Remember, every time your new college freshman is talking, texting or communicating with you, they are not studying. They also are not out building new relationships and meeting new people. 

Do Not Give Them Wake-Up Calls

Your teen is in college now and should be able to get up for that 8 a.m. class on their own. After all, you want them to become a self-sufficient, responsible adult, right? If you are that worried about them getting up in the morning, invest in an alarm clock that shakes the bed or has a very loud alarm. And if they do happen to sleep through that really important midterm, that's part of learning too.

Avoid Embarrassing Them

Even though you follow your child on Instagram, Twitter, and Snapchat does not give you the right to embarrass them. For instance, do not post pictures from their childhood without their consent. You also should avoid "parenting" over social media. In other words, do not call them out publicly for a post that you think is alarming, dangerous, or offensive. Instead, have a private conversation about it. Or, use text or email to make your point. But do not post your disappointment on social media.

Refrain From Too Much Engagement

You do not need to text your teen every day. Sending messages just for the sake of sending them gets really annoying and they will start to ignore your communication altogether. While it is nice to text them "Love You" or "Miss You" once in a while, do not go overboard. Also, avoid stalking your teen online. You need to give them space.

Don't Make a Surprise Visit

No one likes a surprise visit, especially not a college student. Remember, they likely have plans and if you surprise them with a visit, they will feel obligated to spend time with you. You also are likely to encounter a very grumpy teen.

If you are going to be near the campus and want to stop by, ask permission a few days in advance. Keep in mind, your teen will want to clean up their room, hide anything they do not want you to see, and make sure their friends (and significant other, if they have one) are on high alert.

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By Sherri Gordon
Sherri Gordon, CLC is a published author, certified professional life coach, and bullying prevention expert.