Communicating with College Kids From a Distance

Rev. Deb Koster

September 4, 2022

My daughter lives away at college, and every week we talk on the phone to catch up on the week’s events. I love hearing about her classes and her relationships. Each week the conversation begins the same way: “Happy Thursday!” It is a happy Thursday to hear what is on her heart. I like to talk with her while I walk through the woods and get some exercise at the same time. Her bright conversation makes the miles pass quickly.

Seeking connection

This routine took a while to establish as she transitioned to college life. We felt it was important to create some routine to stay connected over the physical distance and the rapid expansion of her world. It's good advice for all parents of college students. You want to stay involved, but you don't want to be the annoying parent who micromanages your child's affairs, nor one who calls too often and interrupts the fun. I wanted to stay a part of her life while not intruding on her new independence.

So first, we set regular times to talk. Second, we set an agenda to be sure we were covering important ground.

Negotiating the details

In setting times, we agreed we can call at anytime to discuss urgent concerns, but we also set a standing phone date to stay invested in each other. As my daughter settled into a routine apart from us, we needed her to establish the new boundary. She had to take the lead in expressing both her need and her concern. How often should we touch base? And when is the best time? What time does not work? Should there be a standing Skype date to talk with siblings? Let your child assist you in setting boundaries for communicating with you while at college. College students often struggle with managing time for necessities like studies, sleep, and fun, so be patient as they adjust.

Allow independence

We also text and Facebook, which we can read anytime. Sometimes I just send a photo of our cat to brighten her day. If she is busy, she returns my text when she is free. Parents who send 20 texts in a few minutes not only irritate the recipient, but also demonstrate control issues. Likewise, unexpected visits may seem like a fun surprise, but they might come at a very inopportune time for your student.

Shaping the conversation

For an agenda, we discuss all the ups and downs of college life from academics, relationships, finances, and spiritual connected-ness. We discuss how things are going with roommates and the challenges of being stage manager for the fall play. We explore the difficulty of transitioning a former boyfriend to the shaky ground of being just friends. We laugh about the silliness of her siblings and talk about the news from home. We also explore deeper into what she wants out of life, the kind of career she hopes for, the characteristics she should seek in a love interest, and the importance of shared faith as a building block for a healthy marriage. We check in about how she is doing physically and emotionally. It all matters.

Over time I developed a mental checklist of topics to cover:

  1. Spirituality: How are you being fed spiritually? What are you learning in Bible Study and church services? Are you finding time to spend each day talking to God and learning from his word?
  2. Studies: How are you doing with your academics? Are you maintaining your grades? Are you finding the time you need to study? What academic support is available?
  3. Social: How are you doing making friends? Are you getting along with roommates? What activities do you engage in together? Are your friends helping you grow in faith or challenging your faith?
  4. Significant other: What qualities will you look for in those that you chose to date? How are they encouraging you in your faith? What evidence do you have of their faith beyond words? Are you honoring God with your physical relationship together?
  5. State of health: How are you feeling physically? How are you taking care of yourself nutritionally? Are you getting exercise? Are you needing medications or contacts reordered or a visit with a dentist or doctor?
  6. Sanity: How are you managing stress? How are you feeling emotionally? Are your emotions visiting extreme highs or lows? Would you benefit from seeing a counselor just to process life?
  7. Serving: How are you caring for others? Are you finding ways to use your gifts for God's kingdom?
  8. Specialty: What are you studying that gets you excited? Have you taken an interest inventory to help you chose major? What career path will you take? What are the next steps on that path? What does your academic adviser think? What internship opportunities should you pursue?
  9. Savings: How are you managing your finances? Are you able to get the work hours you need to keep you in cash for your needs? Are you being careful not to take on more student loans than you can repay?

Encourage reflection

We do not cover all these topics at once, but rather try to touch base on each of them occasionally. Your kids may not want to share with you all the answers, but approach the topics just the same. It is important to guide your kids in self-reflection and to show that you care. They don't need to tell you the details--just remind them of the important questions they should be considering. Try using the phrase, "Have you considered..? This leaves them in charge and gives them some options about which to think. Encourage them to wonder about whether their friendships are a good or bad influence. Let them contemplate the next steps of serving God. You can encourage reflection, but allow them control of managing the process.They may give you an annoyed, "Yes Mom," but they will be grateful later that you cared enough to encourage them.

Take an advisory role

Remember that you are now an adviser in the process. They are in charge of their own life unless they prove themselves incapable of handling responsibility by failing classes, struggling emotionally, or flirting with addictions. You can always pull the financial plug and bring your child home if they prove that they can't handle the responsibility. Until they show you they can't handle it, give them the chance to prove themselves trustworthy. Grant the independence to struggle a little bit on their own and discover their capabilities.

Recognize the parenting shift

As I walk and talk on the phone to my daughter on this sunny day I notice a group of mothers walking together and pushing their strollers. They're enjoying fresh air and sunshine along with their small children. It's a beautiful scene of moms caring for their little ones. In an instant I see my world rush by. It does not feel that long ago that I pushed my daughter in a stroller. As the thought crosses my head, my daughter speaks in my ear and it is clear to me that I am still guiding her down the path. Not physically anymore, but caring for her just the same.

This job of mothering does not end; it merely gets a new job description. We can’t gather our children up to kiss their ouches physically, but our support for them continues. We continue to pray for them and encourage them as they struggle with the challenges of life. This job of mothering keeps evolving as our children grow and need us in new and different ways. As my child grows through the independence of college life, she still needs my love and encouragement. She still needs me to check in and remind her of what is important. Not to control it for her, but to guide her in learning to manage her own life. As mothers we care for our children long after they are grown and on their own. Through all of it we wrap our children in our love and keep directing them to God who loves them best!

About the author — Rev. Deb Koster

Deb Koster is a producer, writer, and speaker for Family Fire. She is also an Innkeeper at The Parsonage Inn in Grand Rapids, MI where she leads marriage retreat on weekends. After over 20 years as a Registered Nurse, she completed a Master of Divinity degree and was ordained as a pastor in the Christian Reformed Church. Deb and her husband Steven enjoy doing ministry together and they are the parents of three awesome young adults.

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