What is the appropriate frequency that you should check in with your college student if you are not hearing from them?
...and a related question...
How do you encourage a college-aged young man to be a better communicator with his parents and sibling? (My biggest current challenge with my son!)
Communication is the currency of human interaction. What we say to each other (and whether we say it with respect or disdain, love or indifference) is an essential ingredient of our relationships with parents, siblings, professors, employers, lovers, friends and foes.
Our communication has the capacity to strengthen, weaken, distance or bring closer the people we relate to. And our choices about communication demonstrate our autonomy and agency as individuals. Communication is everything.
Unfortunately, many of us take for granted that once we’ve learned communication basics like, “I’d like a grilled cheese on whole wheat, please” we’re all set. Putting in my lunch order at a diner is pretty straightforward, and the relationship I have with my server is clearly defined. But if I’m a college student home on spring break talking to my mother, I’ll be lucky if she doesn’t throw the block of cheese at my head.
The question of how (and how much) college students should communicate with parents and siblings is an important one. Here are some guidelines I recommend:
Regardless of what we’re feeling inside, how we speak to other people should always remain grounded in an intention of courtesy and dignity. No being mean, or using words, volume or tone to diminish, shame, injure or humiliate. If you can’t control these variables, go someplace and breathe until you get a grip.
Pro tip: Anything that you MUST SAY RIGHT THIS MINUTE is probably the least mature part of you wanting to talk. Make it wait until you can take a breath, get some perspective, and then deliver your words with intention and clarity.
No, your college student doesn’t get to send messages to their siblings through you. No, you and your partner aren’t interchangeable and thus cannot be each others’ spokesperson.
Though you’re probably really good at paving the communication roads between people, it’s time to get out of the way and insist that they speak to one another for themselves.
People need to practice using their own voices. If your younger children want more from their college sibling, encourage them to speak directly with that sibling. They can even role play or practice with you first, starting with, “Hey bro, I’d like to talk to you more.” Similarly, if one parent wants more communication, it’s up to them to express that to the student and not have the other parent run interference.
“I hate you, I hate you, I hate you” is a common sentiment hurled between siblings, and sometimes from children to parents. (And sometimes parents even think of saying it to their children but are able to control that momentary impulse.)
While not ideal, it’s better to hurl words than fists. If the feelings are so strong that physical action must be taken, perhaps a turn-on-the-heel, head-to-their-room, slam-the-door exit is warranted, as long as the slamming of the door doesn’t break any windows (been there, not fun).
Pro tip: Feelings change.
Everything is scarier at night, and when we’re more tired we’re more likely to speak irresponsibly. It’s truly okay to table a discussion that has a lot of emotion in it until daylight.
Your desire for your children to communicate more with one another, or for your children to communicate more with you, may be more about what you need than what they need. As we watch our children become more independent, they start to communicate less with us, as they should. How you feel about that deserves attention, but not necessarily from your children.
But when you see poor communication between siblings as problematic — one child feels neglected by their college sibling or you observe that poor communication is at the root of a conflict — it’s fine to sit everyone down together and share your observations.
Teens and young adults are testing boundaries and trying on their new sense of being in charge of themselves. This means they get to choose who they speak to and how much.
When it comes to communicating with you, ask them how much contact they want and let them know how much you want with the full knowledge that you may be disappointed. Our desire for more contact with our kids can be more about needing reassurance that they’re okay than it is about the mutual needs of the adult-to-adult relationship.
It’s very hard to go from 24/7 contact with your teen to a once-every-week-or-so call with your college student. So consider this new amount and frequency of contact as a step along the way to a future that’s still being constructed.
I’ve gone through times in my adult life when I talked to my mother a couple of times a week. And I’ve gone through times when we’ve only spoken once a month or so. In between those phone calls, she’s still my mother and she knows I love her. And I know she loves me because part of how she does that is to encourage me to live my life.
What we say, what we don’t say, when we say things and how we say them contribute powerfully to the quality of our connections. If communication is everything, the quality of our connection is everything else.