We all know we should try not to be helicopter parents who excessively hover over our kids, whether they're 8 or 18.
Yet we don't want to be hands-off moms and dads. We want our kids to know we love and support them – and want to hear about their triumphs and their sorrows, even when they're away at college.
So how do we find that right-amount-of-contact sweet spot that our sons and daughters will perceive as neither smothering nor ignoring them? How much should we text, email, and call our kids?
There are no magic numbers – no three texts a day or three calls a week. Like snowflakes, no two families or college students are alike. But parents and therapists do give some guidelines:
Give positive reinforcement. One friend said she goes out of her way, when her kids call, to tell them how much she appreciates it.
Explain your own needs. One mother told her son she needed feedback that didn't involve finances. "I told him I wanted to hear from him more often than when he needs money!" she says. Kids need to do their part. At one campus, a mother had to get the campus police to knock on her son's door to get him to call her.
Make sure your kids know how much you love them. My college friend Cindy Hunter Lang kept in close touch with her sons, Roger Lloyd, now 25, and Chris, now 22. "Honestly, whatit comes down to is just letting someone know that you think about them and love them. Who wouldn't want a call like that every day?!" she says. "It's important to note that these calls were not to check up on them. But they did give me a way to make sure they were handling stresses of college life OK and to offer a life line if I felt they needed one."
Consider your past level of communication. Talking frequently came naturally to the Langs. "We had always communicated openly and well," says Cindy. "So, when they left for college, and periodically throughout, I simply asked, 'Is it OK if I call you every day?' They both said, "Yes. If we don't want to take the call, we'll let it go to voice mail! And, sometimes it did!" At the time, Roger Lloyd sometimes complained that he had "10 missed calls from me after several days!" says Cindy. But when she just asked him about the communication over the weekend, he thanked her. "He told me that he liked getting the calls from me because it meant I was thinking of him," she says.
Ask your child how he wants to hear from you. Chris told Cindy it was OK for her to call, text, and even send private Facebook messages. "Texting generally yielded the quickest response," she says. He went to school nearby. "I made sure not to pressure him to see me and not to be offended when he was busy," she says.
Remember that most children want to hear from you. "My experience is most, not all, kids want to have regular contact with their parents," says Beverly Hills psychotherapist Fran Walfish, author of The Self-Aware Parent. "You don't have to generally beg for it." Ask your child what amount of communication feels reasonable, says Walfish. A child may say once a day – or once a week. (Walfish thinks at least once a week is a good idea.) "And the parent should say to the child, 'My phone lines are always open to you, 24/7,'" she says.
Balance your needs with your child's needs. "Love is learning to let go," says Nashua, N.H., psychologist Carl Hindy, co-author of If This Is Love, Why Do I Feel So Insecure? "Love is about helping your child become all that she or he can become, which means separating your needs from the needs of your child."
Don't worry too much. "It may seem like just yesterday that you were at the school bus stop watching your son or daughter climb up the bus stairs with the huge backpack, and you were one of those teary-eyed moms on the first day of kindergarten or first grade," says Hindy. "The feelings may not be tremendously different now that your child is heading off to college. [College is] still a bigger milestone of independence…So enjoy it as a success."
Try not to worry about your child failing or being too independent. "She'll come and go from the dorm, to her classes, to the library and cafeteria, into the city, to the frat parties perhaps," says Hindy. "And she'll be with others who you won't know. As your daughter's world opens up tremendously, your oversight and awareness of it vastly diminishes, and you really have to accept this. Now the challenge is to relate to your daughter in new ways, much more like an adult."
Don't push your child to come home often. "It can undermine his or her adjustment to college life," says Hindy. "Your son or daughter needs to go off to college with your sincere blessing, not feeling uncomfortable about how parents will feel back home, or how siblings will adjust."
Recognize that you shouldn't be your child's sole support. Kids who need it can seek out help on campus. "It's about the child being able himself or herself to learn how to find those resources, engage them, and feel OK about that," says Hindy. "It is not a siren call for the parents to be that support. You might over extend your parenting role into the child's college life and successfully get him through the semester. But the goal is to set patterns that will get him through the next semester, graduation, a career — a life of his own."
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