Keeping the Dialogue Open With Your College Student

Before your college student headed off to school, you may have had some good conversations about both her expectations and your expectations, and about both of your hopes – for grades, for money management, for behavior, or for other things important to both of you.  At the midpoint in the semester, or just a little past that point, both you and your student may be reevaluating how things are going.  Your student has settled in, more or less, has made some friends, has developed habits of behavior, and has likely received some midterm grades or indications of academic progress. 

This is a good time to revisit some of your earlier conversations about hopes, dreams, and expectations.  Your college student has weathered tremendous transitions during the past few weeks.  He has had to adjust academically and socially, and he has had to create a place for himself in his new world.  You may have had lots of communication with your student in the past few weeks, and you may know exactly how things are going, or you may be wondering how the adjustment process has gone.  This is a good time to check in again with your student.

If your student has made the transition to college life well, if his grades are good, he has made friends, he is managing his expenses, he is making wise choices and managing his time, be sure to congratulate him. Let him know that you recognize that this is a big accomplishment and that you are proud of him.

However, if things are not going as well for your student, then this is a particularly difficult time for both of you.  Whatever your student’s difficulty may be, the midpoint in the semester is often the moment when reality begins to set in.  The newness of the semester has worn off, the urgency of the remainder of the semester strikes, and Thanksgiving vacation, when students will need to face their families looms.  Students are faced with the consequences of choices they have made during the last few weeks and one of their biggest concerns may be “How will I tell my parents?”

Whether your student may be having difficulties with grades, with money, with poor choices around drinking or drugs, with behavior or general conduct issues, you want your student to feel that she can talk to you and let you know what is on her mind, and what is happening to her at college.  As you talk with your student in the next few weeks, she may be listening carefully between the lines to hear your attitude and feelings.  She may be offering some subtle warnings that she is having some issues. 

This is a good time to remember all that you know about good listening skills.  Take time to let your student vent.  Listen carefully to any information that he may offer, and listen between the lines.  At this point in the semester, one of the best things that you may be able to do for your student is to keep the channels of communication open.  If he is having difficulty, the last thing that he probably wants to hear at this point is a lecture.  Chances are that he has already given the same lecture to himself.  Yes, you may want to wring his neck, but that is not what he needs right now.  However, this doesn’t mean that you need to happily accept poor grades, poor choices, poor behavior.  Let your student know how you feel, but let him know that you know that he will make his own choices and you will be there.  Here are a few suggestions that may be helpful:

  • Don’t grill your student.  Ask for information about how things are going, but know that he may be reluctant to share some things.  Work at keeping dialogue going, but don’t interrogate.
  • Think about your goals for your student.  Yes, you want her to complete her college education and get a good job, but you also want her to mature into a caring, responsible adult.  Keep the bigger picture in mind.
  • Remember that first semester grades for many students are often lower than they were used to receiving in high school.  This is a different level of work.  Don’t hold your student to unrealistic standards.
  • If your student is doing poorly in one class, but everything else is going well, don’t worry.  Suggest that she talk to the instructor or her advisor, but again, look at the bigger picture.
  • Ask your student why he thinks he is in difficulty.
  • Let your student know honestly how you feel.  If you are disappointed, it is fair to tell him that.  If you are worried, let him know.  Don’t expect him to share with you if you aren’t honest with him.
  • Ask what he can do differently now.
  • Ask whether he wants to make changes.  If he doesn’t, you may need a different conversation about whether college is the right choice at this time.
  • Ask what you can do to help.
  • Remind her that you’ll be there to listen – no matter what.

Hopefully, your student has adjusted to college well.  However, many students do face difficult realities a few weeks into the semester.  They may already be worrying about how they will have a conversation with you about grades, money, housing, or other issues at the end of the semester.  One of the most important things that you can do now is to continue to keep channels of communication open, continue to be honest with your student about your feelings and expectations, but offer your support.  Your student is working at increasing his independence and responsibility for his actions.  Your attitude or support will give him the foundation he needs.

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