Parenting Your Child in College

Reviewed by Hansa D. Bhargava, MD on October 29, 2013

When children head off to college, they start to become more independent, but they still need your support.

“It’s a big shift in your relationship with your child. Often, parents are not prepared for the distance and independence young adults need,” says Annette Reiter, a licensed marriage and family therapist in St. Petersburg, FL.

You may wonder if your child is staying healthy and keeping up with schoolwork. But you also want to give him enough room to grow and to learn independently.

These five tips can help make the transition smoother for you and your child.

Show Confidence in Them

Some parents want to call or text their kids every day to talk about their grades and homework, says Reiter. It’s better, though, to send the message that you trust your child by letting her take responsibility for her schoolwork.

“Unless they are really struggling, leave their grades up to them,” Reiter says.

When your child tells you about a problem she is having -- for example, a conflict with a roommate -- don’t rush to solve it for her. Instead, listen and coach her on how to solve it.

“It’s time for them to solve most of the minor problems in their lives,” Reiter explains. “If you’re always running to their rescue and don’t let them experience stress, then they won’t have ways to manage stress as an adult.”

Make a Plan for Keeping in Touch

Talk with your child about how often you’ll communicate when he's at college. Find ways to keep in touch that work for you both.

“Be flexible about using the technology your kid prefers, such as video chatting, texting, or instant messaging, says Cora Collette Breuner, MD, MPH, professor of adolescent medicine at the University of Washington.

“If kids know you’re trying to meet them at their level, they will open up more,” she notes.

Kids also appreciate it when you send them fun messages some of the time, says Laura Kastner, PhD, a clinical psychologist at the University of Washington.

“Instead of just texting to ask how they did on their test, send them a funny picture of the family dog going through the garbage,” she says.

Pay Attention to Signs of Trouble

If your child suddenly has a big change in personality -- for instance, if a very social kid starts spending a lot of time alone -- that could be something to talk with him about. IS he doing OK? How are his grades? IS he partying a lot, sleeping too much, or showing any other signs that concern you?

If so, encourage your child to go to the student counseling office. If your child is living in a dorm with an RA (resident advisor), you could get in touch with the RA for feedback. Also, consider visiting the campus to check on your child in person.

Talk About Visits in Advance

When college kids return home for holidays or vacations, they expect to have more freedom than they did in high school. It’s best to talk with your college student ahead of time about your household rules.

“Discuss your expectations about things like their curfew, doing their laundry, and keeping their room clean,” Breuner says.

During their visits, expect she will want to spend time with her friends. Talk with your child in advance about which family dinners and gatherings you want her to attend. “If you negotiate about it before they come home, it can prevent hurt feelings,” Kastner says.

Show your child the same respect. If you're coming to visit her at college, talk to her in advance. Don't just show up at the dorm room or apartment unless you are truly concerned.

Enjoy the New Relationship

Some parents have a hard time letting go of the role they had when their child was in high school. Instead, you could embrace the rewards of your new role.

“It's fun to watch your child become an adult and to pat yourself on the back for a job well done,” Reiter says.

Show Sources


Annette Reiter, MA, licensed marriage and family therapist, St. Petersburg, FL; co-author, Launching: Parenting to College and Beyond.  

Cora Collette Breuner, MD, MPH, professor of adolescent medicine, department of pediatrics, Seattle Children’s Hospital, University of Washington. 

Laura Kastner, PhD, clinical professor, department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, University of Washington; co-author, The Launching Years: Strategies for Parenting From Senior Year to College Life.

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