Roommate conflict is unavoidable. As parents, we hope that our college student will get along perfectly with her college roommate, but it is an unrealistic wish. Whenever individuals live closely together, some amount of conflict is inevitable. Actually, a little bit of conflict is not necessarily a bad thing. Students learn important skills as they learn to handle issues with their roommates.
Even when we realize that some degree of conflict may be inevitable, and may possibly have beneficial effects, it is natural to hope that conflict will be minimal. There are ways, short of giving in on everything, that students can minimize the issues that arise between roommates.
If this is your student’s first time sharing a room and/or living with a large group of people in close quarters, you can increase your student’s chances of having a good experience by helping her to think through some of the issues that might come up and how she will handle them. A good experience begins by preparing for life with a roommate. But there are also things your student can do to reduce conflict and handle inevitable conflict when it does occur.
Thinking things through ahead of time
- Adjust expectations— If your student, or her roommate, has not shared a room before, there are bound to be some problems that will come up. If your student is prepared for this to happen, she can be better prepared to deal with issues. Many students enter their college living experience expecting an ideal arrangement. When issues arise they are taken by surprise and devastated that the relationship is not what they envisioned. Anticipating issues as a normal part of a good relationship will help your student to take them in stride.
- Don’t ignore problems— Your student should not be expected to ignore something that is bothering her or put up with something that is making her uncomfortable. Pretending that a problem does not exist will not make it go away. Dealing with the problem early will prevent resentment and keep it from growing.
- Be realistic— Remind your student that no one is perfect and any roommate will have some habits that may bother her. Remind your student to try to accept her new roommate for who she is. (She may think, too, about what habits she may have that might annoy her roommate.)
- Prioritize— Your student should think carefully about what issues truly matter; what is non-negotiable, and what she might be willing to let slide. She should be prepared to compromise on some issues, and be able to explain clearly what she will not be able to ignore.
- Communicate— Good communication between roommates can prevent many problems. Minor issues mushroom into major problems when the individuals do not discuss the situation. Encourage your student to use all of her communication skills early and often.
- Consider a roommate contract— Roommates can work together early in their relationship to write a roommate contract which spells out points of agreement. They may include non-negotiable points, which may be very individual and will reflect their values. Points might include noise level, cleaning up, overnight guests or visitors, presence of alcohol or drugs in the room, borrowing of personal belongings, etc. Thinking through and discussing topics such as these early in the relationship, may prevent problems later.
When inevitable conflict arises:
- Be prepared to negotiate— Your student should be ready to work with her roommate to find solutions to problems through a collaborative effort. Rather than setting up lines of defense, remind your student that the two-way process of working together will make both roommates feel that they have a stake in the solution.
- Define the problem specifically— The more specific that your student or her roommate can be about issues, the more likely that they will be able to find a solution. As your student works to be specific about describing a problem, she may discover that the problem is really not a big as she had first thought, and that the solution may be simpler than she had considered.
- Cool off before discussing something— If a specific situation or event upsets your student, and she knows that it should be discussed, encourage her to wait before she confronts her roommate. She may need time to choose her words carefully or think about proposing a solution. Conversations held in the heat of the moment often end badly.
- Work with residence life staff— Most residence halls have Residence Assistants living on each floor. These staff members are trained to help roommates work out issues. If your student is experiencing a problem, encourage her, and her roommate, to ask help from the RA to work toward a solution.
- Know when to call it quits— Although considering a move shouldn’t be considered until other avenues are exhausted, moving to another room may be the only solution. Your student may need to wait until an initial settling in period is over, or until a room opens up, but it is usually possible to move out of an unlivable situation. If your student is certain that it will not be possible to work out a solution, she should work with her Residence Assistant and Residence Director to find an alternative living arrangement.
Why some conflict may be a good thing
No matching system is perfect, and even if students are perfectly matched, roommate conflicts are inevitable. There may actually be some benefits to those inevitable situations when your student is confronted with roommate issues. We’d like to suggest four benefits or skills which your student may gain from dealing with roommate conflicts.
Many roommate issues arise because of lack of communication. Many problems can be addressed with improved communication. Your student will learn the importance of good communication to avoid issues and the benefits of communication to resolve problems.
Good communication skills often do not happen automatically, and your student and her roommate may need help and guidance from residence hall staff or others, but they can learn how to talk about potential problems and how to communicate productively to discuss those issues. Your student may learn how to listen more carefully, think critically, create a positive communication climate, and state her needs clearly and objectively. She will learn skills that will carry over to many other situations.
Your student may need to pause to consider carefully what her values are and what she considers important. She may need to think about her expectations and whether they are realistic. She may need to think about those areas in which she is willing to compromise and those that may be non-negotiable. Much of the growth that we hope for in our college age students is in the area of personal values, and living in close proximity with another person will give your student opportunities to think about what she considers most important in life and what she is willing to let go.
When issues do arise, your student will learn how to negotiate a solution. Some students are already good at this skill, and others have much to learn. With help from other students, residence assistants, and residence directors, your student may improve her skill in negotiation.
Your student may discover that negotiation is often inevitable. Your student may discover that good negotiations keep everyone at least somewhat satisfied. Your student may learn not to offer ultimatums and not to be inflexible — and she will learn how to respond when someone else is inflexible. She may learn how to plan a conversation, approach a problem, look for multiple solutions, and close the negotiation.
Living together requires compromise. Whether it is noise in the room, cleanliness, visitors, borrowing of personal belongings, or the myriad of other potential issues, students will need to learn to compromise in order to live together. Your student will have an opportunity to decide what matters most to her and practice compromising on those things that she is willing to let go. She’ll learn to find the middle ground, look for alternatives, and practice flexibility.
Although we often see conflict as negative, and we certainly don’t want our college students to experience too much conflict — especially in their living arrangements — it is important to see a certain amount of conflict as a healthy thing. Talk to your student about potential roommate difficulties so that her expectations are realistic. Help her understand that there will be awkward or even uncomfortable times, but that she and her roommate will probably be able to work through them — and even have a stronger relationship because of the skills they will learn in the process.
The new adventure
The adventure of living with a roommate is a big part of the college experience for many students. Like so many of their experiences in college, some students will have a smoother path than others. With some work ahead of time, some good communication skills, and an attitude of compromise, most students have a good roommate experience. Some roommates become wonderful friends, and others have separate social circles, but enjoy living together.
As always, as a college parent, you may find that your most important task will be to listen carefully to what your student shares and then to encourage her to do whatever she can to make the experience a positive one.