Parental Communication in the First Year of College

On a rare rainy day in Los Angeles, the latest issue of the Journal of the First-Year Experience & Students in Transition arrived via the U.S. Postal Service, and I took the opportunity to sit down and have a good read.  It turned out that my friend and colleague Linda Sax, from whom I had inherited the position of director of the Cooperative Institutional Research Program, had a paper in this issue with her collaborator, Danya Weintraub. In this paper they examined the role of parents in first-year students' college adjustment.


In this study, the authors used data from the CIRP Freshman Survey, filled out during orientation, and combined it with data from these same students on a follow-up survey the next spring.  All the students were attending a public university in the western United States. So the authors had two different points in time: at the beginning and towards the end of freshman year. 

The authors cited work I had done a few years ago, also with the CIRP Freshman Survey, with some questions I'd added on parental involvement in college-related decisions.  At the time, the "helicopter parent" was a popular term to describe parents that swooped down from above and intervened in their child's life.  The thinking was that this overparenting was creating young adults that were not getting the necessary experience with solving their own problems, as well as not being used to dealing with failure.  We were interested in finding out how students felt about their parents being involved in decisions such as where to go to college and what courses to take.  What we found was that to a large extent incoming freshmen thought their parents were involved the "right amount," and not too much or too little.

Getting back to Linda and Danya's article, they asked these freshmen, in the spring of their freshman year, about how often they communicated with their parents.  What they found was that students were in contact with mothers more than fathers, and that they mostly talked on the phone.  Texting was secondary to phone calls, and email was next.  This was in 2012, and my guess is that in 2016 texting might have taken over for phone calls.

While the more frequent communication with mothers was seen as just the right amount by 72% of students, the less frequent communication with fathers was just the right amount for only 55%.  One third, or 33%, of students reported that the level of communication with fathers was less that they would like.  

The authors then went a step further to see if parent-child interactions had a relationship with adjustment to college.  Those students who sought out their fathers for social and emotional support had stronger academic adjustment to college.  Those students who wanted more contact with their fathers than they had showed weaker academic adjustment. For fathers who are inclined to let mothers take the lead in communication, this is a wake up call.  We Dads need to be sure to keep lines of communication open.

Mothers are important too.  Academic adjustment was better for students who felt that they had high quality communication with their mothers.

When I dropped my daughter off at college this fall the school had a two-hour session for parents that was basically about letting go.  Parental communication was encouraged, but at the pace that the student initiates.  Not at helicopter parent rates.  I would add that it is important to check in with your student to make sure that they feel they are getting the support they need at the rate that they feel is best.