Updated: May 19, 2023
Sending your teen off to college might feel at once exhilarating and terrifying, but this is the day you've been preparing for. Besides missing them terribly, one of your biggest challenges will be keeping the lines of communication open without becoming a helicopter parent who constantly hovers and gets a little too involved. Still, you want to make sure your student is adjusting well. And sometimes, there will be days when you miss your child so much that you just want to hear their voice.
So how do you walk the fine line between being a concerned, loving, and supportive parent, versus one who becomes overbearing and awkwardly involved in their young adult's life?
We've got you covered with some tips for keeping in touch with your college child without overstepping any boundaries.
Talk with your student about how often they are comfortable with checking in with you. Maybe you'll agree that your child can initiate video chat or phone calls once a week, while you can say hello via texting in between. Remember, new students not only have to navigate a whole new academic schedule, but they're also trying to form new friendships and get involved in activities. The key is to be available for your child without expecting them to be available for you 24/7.
Even if you're friends with each other, resist the urge to chime in on or "like" every single post, especially on updates that might involve a new group of friends you haven't met. Of course, if you spot something questionable, there's nothing wrong with subtly mentioning it the next time you speak, along with a warning about how oversharing on social media can negatively impact their future.
Texts, memes, FaceTime, Wordle… There are lots of ways you can communicate with your teen, and not all of them involve a drawn-out phone conversation. Experiment with formats, from checking in for a little weekly screen time to sharing in a quick game you both enjoy. And don’t shy away from short-form methods of staying in touch—a quick text about something funny you witnessed on your morning commute can make your teen feel more connected than a scheduled phone call.
Start a family text or pull your teen into a WhatsApp group to keep them feeling connected to home. These group chats should be light-hearted and fun. Use this space as an opportunity to share pet photos or jokes, or to analyze the last episode of a show you both like to watch.
You're obviously curious about how your teen is adapting during those first few weeks, but interrogations about study habits, hygiene, and parties will most likely backfire. Instead, create a laid-back dialogue such as providing updates about what's going on back home. You can also try asking the same types of questions you might have asked during your family dinners. Things like: Anything funny happen this week? What's your favorite class so far? How is the cafeteria food? Little by little, your student will open up and share tidbits about life on campus.
Care packages and handwritten letters are sweet but passive ways to show a homesick teen some love and affection. The personalized gesture will be very much appreciated and may even earn you some brownie points with your student’s roommate if you throw in a few extra snacks.
Family or parents’ weekend is a great time to visit your teen in person. Not only does it give you something to look forward to, but it gives your kid an opportunity to show off their campus and introduce you to the friends they’ve made in college.
College isn’t only a time for your kid to practice their independence, it’s also a time for you to practice what it means to parent a young adult. Your role now is less about making decisions for them, and more about acting as a guide and letting your child make their own mistakes. Remember, mistakes are a part of life, and they’ll learn more from fixing these themselves than from having you swoop in to save the day.
If your child is struggling through a tough transition, avoid coming off as judgmental or probing if you find out about a less than stellar grade, for example. Avoid phrases like "you'd better get it together" or "what's going on with you?" and try not to keep reminding them how much the tuition bill is, or how high the stakes are. Instead, encourage a meeting with the professor or for your child to look into peer tutoring or academic services on campus. Gentle guidance—the kind you'd offer a close friend—can be more effective than piling on the pressure.
It might seem weird to speak to your teen adult-to-adult, but the first college semester will lay the groundwork for doing just that. Be confident in how you raised your child, and step back to watch them grow and flourish at college. In the meantime, they don’t have to know that you're secretly counting down the days until you get to see your grown-up baby in person once again.