Any way you slice it, starting college means substantially altering your relationship with your parents. If you’ll be living apart from your parents, as is the norm at most top-tier schools, the difference in your day-to-day life will likely be dramatic, both for you and for them In this context, it’s easy for communication—how much, when, and by what means—to become a source of uncertainty or even stress.
If you’re still in high school, and especially if you don’t have older friends or siblings to consult, you’re probably wondering what a “normal” or “average” college student’s relationship with their parents looks like. (Of course, this can be expanded to other family members as well.) Sure, you have your own preferences, but it’s also valuable to have some basic parameters to use for reference.
The truth is a little more complicated, and your eventual arrangement will depend upon decisions you make as a unique and specific family. Read on for more information about the breadth of “normal” college experiences, the needs you’ll have to address on both sides, and the importance of communication in coming up with a plan that works for you
How Much Do Most College Students Talk to Their Families?
A recent article from Teen Vogue indicated that there’s a wide variety of experiences among today’s college students with regard to how much they talk to their families. Some students interviewed called home only once a month, while others spoke to their parents multiple times a day. When you add in texting, the situation gets even more complicated—some people aren’t big fans of speaking on the phone, but text their family members frequently.
This article squares with my own experience, both in college and from working with students after I graduated. I started college without a cell phone, so my phone calls were limited, and I kept them brief—long-distance minutes were a precious commodity. Among my friends and classmates, some people maintained a perfectly positive parental relationship based on one or two calls a month, while others thrived on more constant contact.
There’s no one “right” or “normal” schedule for student-parent communication. It varies based on the human beings involved and their relationships with each other. It’s also a function of practical factors, like the busyness of your schedule and the limited privacy offered by dorm accommodations. Clearly, the calculation is going to be different for each student.
The effects of changing technologies deserve extra emphasis here. Talking on the phone isn’t the only way to keep in touch any more. Texting and messaging have opened the door to ways of communicating with your family that are potentially much more low-key and easier to fit into your schedule than a phone call, but also come with their own challenges.
Today, your parents might follow you on Instagram or become friends with you on Facebook. (That last option is definitely not something I’d recommend to everyone—proceed with caution!) That handy camera on your phone can give them a glimpse into what your life looks like now, or even facilitate a Skype tour of campus. These modern options can add excitement and interest to the ways in which you communicate with your family.
How often will you talk to your family when you’re in college? That depends—on the choices you make, on the commitments you take on and the shape of your college schedule, and on your family members’ comfort and interest in exploring options beyond the traditional phone call. There’s no one right answer. Still, it’s something you’re going to need to do on a regular basis, and you have to address and plan for that when you’re contemplating life after high school.
Becoming Independent While Staying Connected
The subject of keeping in touch can be a tough one for students and their families to deal with. Sometimes it even turns out to be the source of significant conflict. Moving out of your family home for what is likely the first time in your life is often a major milestone on the way to becoming an adult, and it’s liable to cause big emotions for everyone involved.
At this point in your life, it’s normal for you to need and guard your independence. Making choices about college, from where you’ll apply to what you’ll study, involves taking responsibility for your own life in a new and exciting way. You’re coming into your own as a young adult with dreams and goals, and even though you don’t have everything figured out yet, you’re on the way toward taking control of your own future.
However, it’s equally normal for your parents (or other close family members) to miss you, worry about you, and want to keep up with your life. They’re not reaching out to you because they want to ruin your life—they’re trying to maintain a relationship with you because they’re your family!
Your parents have dedicated years to raising you and creating conditions for you to succeed in life. They can’t just turn their concern for you off like a light switch when you graduate from high school. They’re interested in you, they love you, and they want to make sure you’re safe and well.
Your family members are no longer around to directly observe what’s going on in your life if you go away to college, so you have to take on a more conscious role as a conduit for that information. You don’t have to tell them every single detail of your new life if you don’t want to, but it’s fair for them to expect some kind of regular updates.
I should note that obviously, not everyone has a great relationship with their family, so this advice is decidedly not one-size-fits-all. Many other factors can affect that relationship, both as it exists now and as you’d like it to exist in the future. If your situation is more complicated, you should absolutely do what you need to do to keep yourself safe and healthy.
In my own case, I think establishing my own independent life has been great for my relationship with my parents. I can relate to them on a different level now, without all the baggage and testing of boundaries that characterized my teenage years. The transition wasn’t always easy, but we’ve settled into a much better rapport since I left for college.
Like many other aspects of planning for college—and growing up—there are no simple answers. The best way to figure out the best plan for your particular family is to be open and honest with each other about your expectations and needs, and to start these conversations well before you actually leave for school.
Finding Your Balance
Every family has to find their own way when it comes to negotiating student-family relationships in college. Every person has different emotional needs and preferences, so no one set schedule or plan for when phone calls or emails will happen (for example) will work for every family.
I firmly believe that the best way to get your college career started on the right foot is to start discussing this issue early and keep addressing it and checking in throughout the college application process. This approach can’t guarantee that you won’t encounter problems in the future, but it does give you time to explore the options and address major issues in advance.
As overly formal as it may sound, it may really help for you to explicitly set up a time to talk over with your family the issue of communication during college. Getting everyone’s underlying assumptions and expectations out in the open is highly useful, and in the absence of mind-reading powers, the best way to do that is for everyone to come into the conversation with an understanding of its topics and goals.
Those underlying expectations are at the heart of building a good student-family relationship and communication strategy while you’re in college. Unaddressed differences between your expectations and those of your family members can frustrate your attempts to stay in touch in a way that works for everyone.
For example, let’s say that you initially agree to talk to your parents on the phone every Sunday evening. This seems simple enough, but it’s worthwhile to spend a bit more time interrogating what this means to all parties involved.
Should you plan for a five-minute check-in, or block out time for a two-hour conversation? If you wait to call until 10 PM, is that “evening”, or well past your parents’ bedtime? Within that conversation, will lots of questions from your parents about your personal life feel like an intrusive interrogation, or will those questions be welcome as a sign of your parents’ interest in your life? Only you and your family can say for sure.
You may have to do some negotiating to come to a mutually agreeable decision, and you may end up fielding expectations from your family that aren’t your favorite. That’s how it works, though. Part of being an adult and embracing your newfound independence and responsibility is accepting that compromise is often a necessary thing. You may roll your eyes at daily goodnight texts, but if that’s what will help your family adjust to you leaving and build a strong adult relationship with you, it’s not such a high price to pay.
Helping Relationships Grow With You
One last thing to remember is that whatever system you set up for communicating with your family in college doesn’t have to last forever. You don’t need to worry about getting it right on the first try—these arrangements work best when they’re flexible and can change with your changing needs through college and beyond.
As I said, I talked to my family fairly infrequently when I first came to college. Over time, however, our habits evolved on both sides, and we went through many different phases. I credit the good communication that I enjoy with my family now to the fact that our relationships were open to growing as I grew.
My mom learned to text, and I learned that sending her photos of flowers I ran across was a good way to show that I was thinking of her. My younger siblings matured into adults who were more interested in spending time talking to their dorky big sister. My dad and I found common ground where we’d once disagreed. Most importantly, though, we all put work into keeping our relationships solid.
You can make all the plans you like, but you’ll probably have to adjust them once you get a better idea of what your college life will look like. Maybe your parents’ preferred nightly phone call ritual won’t work for your schedule. Maybe you’ll miss your siblings more than expected and want to plan more conversations with them. Maybe you’ll just be baffled by your dad’s insistence on communicating solely through tersely worded and extremely cryptic emails signed “The Old Man.” (Dad, if you’re reading this, I have no idea what you’re trying to tell me.)
Your relationship with your family is a living thing, and as you grow into adulthood, that relationship will grow and change. That’s okay! As long as you maintain a core of love, support, and respect, you can keep adapting your connection to your family to fit with the changing circumstances of your life.
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