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Strengthening Relationships With Our College-Aged Kids

Amy Mezulis, PhD

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Just before Thanksgiving I received a flurry of texts from my 19-year-old college sophomore:

Daughter: “I’m so excited to come home!”

Me: “YAY!”

Daughter: “Please don’t coddle me too much or ask a million questions. I’ll talk more if you don’t pester me.”

Me: “Ummm…OK?”

Daughter: “Can you make mac-n-cheese one night?”

Me: “Yes. This I can do.”

As a developmental psychologist, I had a good chuckle. The contrast of the enthusiasm to come home with the preemptive “don’t bug me” with the simple request for some comfort food so perfectly exemplifies this college age — no longer a child, but not quite all grown up either.

As a parent, honestly, I appreciated her candid and clear statement about what she needed from me. I knew she’d had a tough few weeks with a breakup and midterms, and I was dying to know more. And she knew I wanted to know more and would have a million questions ready for her. And she knew she didn’t want to have to talk on demand.

Hence her request: Let me talk when I’m ready. While a piece of me still wanted to know all.the.things about her life, another piece of me respected her ability to be clear about her needs. Which were not necessarily to talk, but to be home, to get a home-cooked meal, and to be in a space where she could set the terms for interaction.

As our college-aged kids try their hands at adulting, we parents have to walk a fine line between letting go and continuing to provide the safety net for their inevitable falls. Through it all, maintaining healthy communication and positive relationships can be a challenge.

We may not always like or approve of their decisions — about classes, majors, how much partying they’re doing, their friends, where they go over the breaks, whether they get a summer job or not — and yet we have less and less input into those decisions. Even if we like or approve of their choices, often they are also pulling away from us in subtle or sometimes not-so-subtle ways. The daily texts may go unanswered, the family group chat ignored, they pop home just to go out with friends again.

While intellectually we understand our job is to raise independent adults, emotionally it can be difficult to see and feel this pulling away. It raises the question: What does it mean to parent a young adult child? How can we foster strong and supportive relationships with our college-aged kids?

4 Tips for Strengthening Relationships With College Students

1. Give space – and mean it.

Letting our young adult kids set the pace on contact gives them some much-desired control over their time and interactions. After so many years of their time not being their own, college kids really relish the opportunity to do what they want when they want.

If they don’t respond to your texts or phone calls “just checking in,” rather than upping the frequency consider slowing it down. Understand they're not being rude, or ungrateful, or uncaring — they are just absorbed in their own lives, as is normal. They are also learning to rely on others for support.

If it doesn’t happen naturally, have an open and gentle conversation about how much communication you can both agree to. Instead of “Why haven’t you haven’t been responding to my texts? I’m starting to get worried. Call right away,” try “We haven’t been able to connect this week. I’d like to call you this weekend. What's the best time? I know you’re busy.” One scheduled and valued FaceTime call a week will feel better in the long run than daily texts or calls that go unanswered and build resentment.

2. Ask the important questions.

When you do have the opportunity to connect, be curious but nonjudgmental about their lives. Try to avoid the litany of pressing (to you) questions about classes, majors, job plans, grades or social life that imply what you think should be happening in their lives or subtle judgment about their choices.

Instead ask the questions that really matter: Are you happy? What are you liking best? Anything that is harder than you expected? Can I help you in any way? These questions communicate curiosity and openness to their experience, and express that your concern is for their well-being not their achievement or success.

3. Invite, don’t demand.

One key goal these years is to create a relationship in which kids are spending time with us because they want to, not because they feel they have to.

In order to create this culture, we must first acknowledge and honor that they may not want or need to talk to us regularly, to come home over breaks, or to participate as consistently in family events or traditions as we’d like.

Once we let go of the assumption that they must and reframe to we’d like them to, it can alter how we communicate with our college students. Instead of “I expect you to come home for the holidays” or “You need to go see Grandma when you’re home,” consider “Are you thinking you'll come home for the holidays? We hope so!” and “I know Grandma is hoping you have time to visit with her.”

When they're home, give them the opportunity to join in rather than demand participation. Invitations often result in greater joining in than do demands.

4. Create the home base they want to come back to.

If home remains a place they feel safe, can rest and recharge, can connect with favorite foods/traditions/people, then they will want to return. If home becomes a place of obligation, command performances or intrusive questions, they may not be eager.

Not sure what your college student needs? Just ask. That open, curious stance about what they need can really open the door to better communication.

One small but poignant example: The first time my college daughter came home, I was so careful to stock the fridge and pantry with all her favorite snacks, milk and treats. I was flabbergasted when her first morning home she took herself to the grocery store and returned with items I’d never seen her eat before.

But instead of being offended ("I went to ALL this trouble to get your favorites!"), now I shoot her a text a day or two before she comes home: “Heading to the store. Any special requests you’d like me to have in the house?” This simple open curiosity communicates that I want to “mom” her a bit by having things ready for her, but also allows her to grow and change and have new tastes and preferences. Rather than feel disconnected that I didn’t know she’s now drinking oat milk instead of half-and-half in her coffee, I invite her to share these new interests with me.

Building a Bridge

During these college years, the gap between what we want as parents and what our kids want as emerging adults can seem unbridgeable. We often really miss them, miss the close relationship of the growing-up years, miss knowing about their day-to-day lives, and are more anxious than ever about their well-being with less daily information about it.

On the other hand, our students often really want to pursue independence and consciously or subconsciously don’t want to feel like they rely too much on us. But study after study has shown that when we as parents can give that supportive space to let them come to us rather than us pursuing them, stronger relationships emerge.

On the last night of her visit, my 19-year-old sat near me at the kitchen counter sending some emails while I unloaded the dishwasher. She started talking about her classes and upcoming tests, her plans for declaring her major next term, classes she’s thinking about. She volunteered a little about the breakup, and from what she said I could tell she’d gotten needed support from her roommates along the way.

I asked a question here and there but mostly listened. After a while her phone dinged with an incoming call, she left to answer it, and the conversation was over.

She left the next day. She gave me a huge hug goodbye at the airport and several hours later she texted me from her dorm: “Back safely! All went fine. It was such a great trip home. I love you!”

Amy Mezulis is the Co-Founder and Chief Clinical Officer at Joon Care, the teletherapy practice for teens and young adults.
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Amy Mezulis, PhD, is is the Co-Founder and Chief Clinical Officer at Joon Care. She is a licensed clinical psychologist and received her BA from Harvard University and her MA and PhD in Clinical Psychology from University of Wisconsin – Madison. Dr. Mezulis provides services to older children, adolescents and adults utilizing an evidence-based, cognitive-behavioral approach that includes mindfulness and acceptance-based treatments. Dr. Mezulis has specialized training in mood and anxiety disorders, eating disorders, suicidality and self-injury, trauma, substance use and adolescent development. She is currently a professor in the PhD program in Clinical Psychology at Seattle Pacific University.
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