We hear a lot these days about helicopter parents, and we hear a lot about the growing amount of communication between college parents and their college students. This growing communication takes many forms — and is generally two-way communication. Parents aren’t the only ones doing the calling. Parents and their college students are often encouraged to limit their communication to enable college students to separate, make transitions, and become independent.
But what if too much communication with your college student isn’t your problem? What if all communication with your college student feels one-way? You call, text, e-mail — and you get no response. Your student doesn’t pick up your calls or return messages or e-mails. You may be frustrated, worried, or just plain angry. It may help if you give some thought to why your student may not be communicating much, as well as what you can do, and shouldn’t do, to help increase the chances that your student will communicate more.
In our last post, we considered some of the reasons why your student may not be contacting you as much as you think that he should. In this post, we’ll look at some suggestions for improving the amount and quality of contact with your student.
What not to do when your student doesn’t call
You never hear from your college student — or at least it seems that way to you. You’re upset, worried, and possibly angry. You feel you need to take some action. There are a few things we’d suggest that you avoid as you consider what to do.
- Don’t stalk your student. Don’t call him constantly. Calling every hour or two to remind your student that you haven’t heard from him yet probably won’t help. The same caution is true of texting. Constantly texting ”CALL ME!” won’t help. If you are friends with your student on Facebook, definitely don’t leave messages there.
- If you do hear from your student, don’t spend the conversation berating her for not calling sooner or more often. She may not call because she knows this is what the conversation will be about. Don’t use precious talk time making your student feel worse.
- Unless you are truly worried about your student’s health and safety, don’t call your student’s roommate, friends, or Residence Hall Director. Don’t embarrass your student by escalating the lack of contact to another level. Of course, if you are ever truly concerned about your student’s well being, call the college and ask for help.
What might help improve communication with your student
As frustrating as it may be when your student doesn’t stay in contact with you, there are some actions that you can take that might help to open the doors to better communication.
- Think carefully about how much you are communicating with your student. Perhaps you are overwhelming him and you should back off a bit. It may seem contradictory to think that less communication from you will result in more communication from him, but it is possible. Consider reducing the amount that you call, text, or write so that it isn’t as constant for your student. It might give him more space to respond.
- Let your student take the lead about how she’d like to contact you. Does she prefer a phone call or would she rather e-mail you occasionally. Is a quick text best or would she rather use Skype to have a meaningful video chat? Perhaps you need to be more flexible about the form of communication that you expect.
- Let your student know why you feel you need to hear from him. This may also be an important exercise for you. Think about your need. Are you worried about him? Are you lonely because he’s not home? Are you living the college life vicariously through him? Be honest with yourself and your student about your needs. Your student may be more understanding when he realizes why you want to hear from him.
- Keep the channels open by sending light, newsy messages from home without any expectations. Send an occasional e-mail with the latest town or family gossip. Send an e-card that says ”I love you” or ”Good luck” or ”I’m proud of you.” Send a real, snail mail card or letter with news clippings or a gift card. Students love to find something in their campus mailbox. Send a small care package once in a while. Your student may be willing to respond to something.
- If your student does call, thank her for calling without making her feel guilty. A simple ”Thank you for calling. I really appreciate it” will do, then move on. Keep it positive.
- If your student does call, think carefully about what you say and how you say it. Keep the phone call positive. If you use this opportunity to complain about not hearing more, or to tell your student what he should be doing, it will confirm for him that he doesn’t want to call more.
- Be reasonable in your expectations. Perhaps because there is so much in the news these days about the amount of contact between students and parents, you may expect to hear from your student more than you need to. A bit less communication between parents and students may be healthier. One reasonable expectation might be a once a week ”check in” phone call. Some parents refer to this as the ”proof of life call” or the ”duty call.” Let your student choose the time — often Sunday afternoon or evening is a good time.
- Be careful about threatening your student with dire consequences, this can often backfire. However, if you pay the cell phone fees, you might talk to your student about whether you will continue to pay the fee if she doesn’t use the phone to at least connect with you once in a while.
- If you are close enough to the college to be able to do so, let your student know that you haven’t heard from him so you plan to come to the college to check on him. He may respond quickly to let you know he’s fine. (He may also be happy to have you come to visit, so be prepared to follow through on this.)
- When your student comes home for break, try to find a neutral time and have a discussion about how/when/why to communicate. Negotiate. Listen to her reasons for not calling. Ask her to listen to your reasons for needing a call. Ask her what she thinks is a reasonable amount of contact. Both you and she may be surprised about what happens when you listen to each other.
The amount of communication between parents and their college age students is a very personal decision. Too much communication may not encourage your student to gain the independence and self agency that he needs to accomplish during the college years. Too little communication may not give your student the support that you hope to provide. Either extreme may frustrate and/or worry either parents or student. Work with your student to understand his needs and to let him understand yours. Healthy communication will help your relationship continue to grow throughout the college years.