Stay Connected When Your Teen Leaves for College

By Cheryl Barker
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An important parenting strategy is to maintain a connection to your teen, one that keeps her reassured of your love and interest in her life.

After my husband and I dropped off our daughter Kelli at her college dorm, I resisted the urge to call her the next day. I knew she needed to make her own way, but I ached to hear how everything was going. I was thrilled later that evening when I received a call from her.

If you have a high school senior who plans to head off to college after graduation, your parenting job isn’t over. She still needs parental guidance and involvement during her final year of high school and for you to be there for her in her years at college. Here are ways I learned to stay connected:

Before leaving for college

Adolescence can be a tough time for parents to connect on a deeper level with their kids. But making an effort sets a solid foundation for connecting with them once they leave.

Face to face

Technology is a great way to stay connected with high schoolers, but a face-to-face connection is more valuable. When our daughter Kristin was in high school, I drove her to a university 75 miles away for private piano lessons three times a month. The time we spent connecting during those drives and while eating dinner together after each lesson nurtured our relationship.

Open-ended questions

Kristin had come to love the university where she was studying piano, so when it came time to choose a college, she wanted to go there. Knowing she needed a broader experience before making her decision, my husband and I talked her into visiting two other colleges.

As we drove away from one of the campuses, Kristin said she didn’t like it.

“Really? What didn’t you like about it?” I asked

She began listing her concerns. Helping her explore how she felt allowed her to feel heard and make a choice. Gail Goolsby, a professional counselor and life coach, suggests that parents ask open-ended but not “why” questions. “Why” can make teens feel defensive.

Beyond the words

By my daughter Kelli’s senior year, she had worked her way up to being the No. 1 singles player on the varsity tennis team. At one tournament, I watched Kelli struggle in a match. I could tell from her facial expression that she was fighting to keep it together mentally and emotionally. Goolsby points out that as parents we know our children’s physical signs of anxiety and fatigue, as well as their unspoken cries for understanding or help. They may tell us things are “fine,” but when we pay attention to their body language and facial expressions, we get a clearer, more accurate sense of what’s going on.

Praying for them

One of the best ways I found to stay connected was by praying consistently for my daughters — and letting them know. Teens need our prayers — not only for big life choices, but also for day-to-day challenges. After letting them know I was praying for them as they took tests or dealt with difficult situations, they began to ask me to pray about specific things. And I asked them to pray for me, too.

After leaving for college

Finally the day arrived when our teens left for college. Since opportunities for interaction lessened, I found new ways to stay connected:

Meet needs

Each semester I sent handwritten notes or funny cards to encourage my daughters. Once while visiting Kristin, I saw a card I’d sent displayed prominently in her room. The card was a symbol of my love and steadying influence. Along with sending cards and notes, we mailed care packages of toothpaste, deodorant and shampoo. An unexpected gift card to a favorite restaurant or coffee shop brightened her week. Care packages translate into love and support and encourage students.

Build bonds

My husband and I got to know the college friends of our girls. When we visited, we treated them to lunch and brought bags of home-baked goodies. We even sent surprise notes to let them know we’re praying for them. I always asked Kristin and Kelli about their friends in our conversations. It helped me stay connected to our daughters’ new lives and assured them I was genuinely interested in everyone who was important to them.

Make a date

Throughout our girls’ college years, as soon as we heard about new boyfriends, we made plans to meet them. A new guy popped into Kelli’s life just weeks after she left home. Building a relationship with her new guy was vital in staying fully connected to her. After all, she was spending more time with him than anyone else. We wanted to be included in this new chapter of her life and for her to be able to talk freely about him.

Embrace the major

We worked to be supportive of our children’s majors and showed an interest in them. Whether the choice of her major was based on a well-reasoned decision for a secure source of income or on following her passion, we showed enthusiasm. My husband and I attended Kristin’s musical performances and rejoiced with her over opportunities. Kelli appreciated an article I gave her that addressed an issue in her health promotion field. She even showed it to her professor. Our girls were especially pleased when we sought their advice in their new areas of expertise. This helped move our parent-child relationship toward friendship.

Parenting a college student has its challenges. But as we found ways to stay connected, we reaped the rewards of good relationships with them for years to come.

Copyright © by Cheryl Barker. Used by permission.

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About the Author

Cheryl Barker

Cheryl Barker is a freelance writer.

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