Have a child about to go off to college? Find out how you can keep connected to your college kid.
Parenthood is full of stages. You’re pregnant, then you have a baby, a toddler, a school age child, a tween, a teen and then boom- faster than you ever would have realized- the time arrives when your baby leaves home to go to college (or university as we call it here in New Zealand).
It’s a strange feeling when you child is preparing for this next stage of their life. You’ve spent all these years nurturing, sacrificing, and focusing on being a family, and now they’re so excited to leave the nest that you’ve created, you wonder if you’ve done a good job at all.
However, parenting most definitely does not stop once your child goes off to school. If you’ve have a good relationship with them when they’ve been at home, then this won’t change. But proximity – or lack thereof- does make a difference, so here are 10 ways you can keep connected to your college kid.
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1. Make sure they have a room in your home.
I left home when I was 16. After that time, I never had a room that was mine other than the place in which I was living at the time, and I am still envious now of people whose parents kept their room intact. Now that’s not saying don’t change things up. My son went to university some eight hours drive from where we were living at the time, and after our long trip home, arriving back very late at night, the first thing my daughter did was insist we swap the beds over, as she’d had her eye on her brother’s much larger bed for months. But that aside, do what you can to keep a space that is theirs. Even in the home my husband and I built last year, we allocated bedrooms to each of the children and styled them in ways that suited their personalities.
The reason for this one is that you want your children to feel like they always have a place to come home to. Over the next few years they could live transient lives and knowing that they have a home base will give them a sense of stability. In addition, if they come home over the holidays, they’re not going to feel like an intruder forced to sleep on a stretcher-bed because you have turned their room into a home office or that craft room you always wanted.
2. Pay for them to come home when they want to.
Finances are always tight for students – and learning to manage on a limited income is one of their rites of passage. This key time will shape how they handle money in their adult lives, so it’s really important to not be the Bank of Mom and Dad. However, one thing you can do to help keep connected when your child goes to college is to let them know that whenever they want to come home, even for a weekend, you’ll pay for them to get there. Again, this is another example of the above – you’re wanting them to know that you will be there for them, no matter what, and if they need you, they don’t have to worry about finances getting in the way. Just don’t be too hurt if they don’t take you up on this offer as much as you would like!
3. Let them drive the communication.
It can be really tempting to call, text, or Facetime a thousand times a day, but resist the urge. Again, this time of their lives is about developing independence. You need to not interfere with this by constantly checking up on whether they are going to classes, doing their assignments and so on. They should contact you when they need you.
And research supports me here: students in the highest level of contact with their parents are in fact the ones who are the least autonomous and satisfied with both the college experience and their relationship with their parents. So even though it’s hard, think about whether what you are doing is for your benefit or theirs. In addition, know that short messages via text or email are more likely than phone calls, and often result in less hurt because they can be answered when it suits both sides.
4. Accept you’ll get more bad news than good.
If you’re fantasizing that when they do get in touch, you’ll engage in long catch-ups about everything under the sun, think again. Chances are that 80% of the communication you have with your college child will be bad news (percentage based totally on my own estimation). They’ll be stressing about money, their relationships, their workload, their living conditions, their diets. The first thing to realize here is that just because you’re only hearing from them when things are bad, doesn’t mean that things are bad all over. They’re contacting you when they need you. When life is sweet, they don’t think of you as much. Painful but true.
The second thing here is to resist the urge to jump in and try to fix everything when you do hear this bad news. Again, part of the role of this time of life is for them to develop the tools and strategies to cope when challenges present themselves. Use your knowledge of your child to help you decide when to listen, and when to step in.
5. Cultivate a lack of judgement.
Now when you hear this bad news, it may cause strong emotional reactions in you- particularly if their choices go against your values and beliefs. I don’t drink now, for example, and it’s challenging for me to hear stories about drunken nights because I know what that was like and how it ended for me (upon saying that my kids respect this and I very rarely get such stories). But I have to remember that their path is not my path.
Furthermore, their idea of good news may not be what you expected or hoped for. For example, you may totally dislike their new boyfriend or girlfriend. Resist all urges to pass judgement about their partners. At the end of the day, they will feel your judgement and will simply not share this aspect of their lives anymore. Should their relationship progress, you don’t want it to get to the point where they choose them over you. Therefore grit your teeth and listen and save your judgement for when you are talking to your spouse afterwards.
6. Make social media your friend.
Social media, like all things, can be a blessing and a curse. After all, all those things I talked about above like judgement and over communication can be spurred after seeing a picture of your child dancing on a table outside a bar, or wearing little more than a sock (and yes, I did have several conversations about my son NOT posting pictures of himself in such a state of undress).
However social media can really help you keep connected to your college kid. Firstly, Facebook tagging. Tagging your child in funny or relevant posts is a super short and sweet way of keeping connected. My daughter and I do this all the time. You don’t need much more than their name, and you both get a warm fuzzy. Secondly, use a family group. This is something my daughter set up this year for our extended family and it’s a brilliant way of keeping up to date. Pop in photos, short messages and updates, and enjoy.
7. Put important dates on the calendar.
Believe it or not, your life will become so busy you might forget important dates in your kids’ lives. No, I’m not talking about significant dates like birthdays, but dates like when their exams start, or their first day at a new job, and so on. When my children mention dates I try and write them down, so that I can send them a quick text on the morning of the day in question. Just a “good luck for the test!” is enough to let them know you’re thinking of them.
8. Send care packages.
Who doesn’t love getting packages in the mail? Another way of keeping connected is to send food items occasionally that are your child’s favorite but might be beyond their budget, or ones that have special memories. For example, I once couriered up a piece of my daughter’s favorite cake from the local café. Alternatively you can purchase a care-package ready to go like this one which is one of Amazon’s healthier offerings:
If you’re not keen on sending food items, or looking for something a little different then there’s some good ideas in this article. My favorite one is the personal hygiene items because toiletries are expensive on a student budget.
9. Develop new traditions.
Your family may have long standing traditions, such as spending Christmas together. One of the hardest things about your children leaving home is accepting that these traditions may have to change. In our house I only have my kids at home for Christmas every second year, as they spend the other with their father. However “my” last two Christmases, my son has been in South America, once for a holiday and once to complete his overseas medical placement. When you factor in boyfriends and girlfriends, then my future might look like a Christmas with my whole family only every three or four years.
This can only be accepted, not changed, so one idea is to develop new traditions that the family commits to. My idea was to have Easter be a sacrosanct time where no matter what, we all came together and went on a holiday. Part of this meant that all boyfriends and girlfriends were welcome also. I selected Easter as in New Zealand we have at least four days for this holiday. Unfortunately, our first attempt at this was a bust as my daughter pulled out at the last minute thanks to relationship issues (see point 5!), but this is something I still really would like to institute.
10. Don’t make them feel guilty.
Finally, try your best to not lay on the guilt trips. Yes it is super hard, for as I said above, a huge part of your life has been nurturing your child. Now at times it feels as though you and all you hold dear are being rejected, and that can hurt.
In those moments, I like to remember those words by Kahlil Gibran:
Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.
So lay off the guilt if they don’t call, visit, or want you to visit as much as you would like. They are not your possessions but new adults in their own right. How you handle things now in this phase of your relationship will shape the course of the years to come. And what’s more, now is the perfect time to start thinking about you. There’s a whole lot of freedom to explore those aspects of yourself that may have been neglected over the last few years. Enjoy them!
To sum up…
I’d like to admit that there’s no way I managed to do these from the moment my children left home- and even six years since my first left and four years since my second, I’m still working on it. I have to say this, because my daughter reads these posts and I can just imagine her saying, “What? Mum never did that for me!” or making comments about the guilt trip section. However, hopefully they help give you some ideas and strategies to keep connected with your college kid as you ponder this next stage of your parenting life.
Have you got any great tips on how you keep connected with your college kid? Let me know in the comments!
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