Strategies for Families Communicating with their Students on Break


The first visit home from college is usually an interesting one for the entire family. Students may return home thinking that their newly found independence will be recognized and appreciated by the family. In contrast, family members continue to live in their usual style and expect that the established “house rules” will still apply. You can anticipate that your student’s expectations will differ from those held by them during those first visits home. This is not uncommon as your student’s ambivalence about gaining autonomy by emphasizing their own personal choice and control in a manner that is consistent with fostering college student development. This coincides with Chickering and Reisser’s (1993) third vector of moving through autonomy toward interdependence. I have listed four ingredients to help make their first visit home a positive experience.

Managing the Three Parts of Your Personality
In the 1950’s, Eric Berne introduced the theory Transactional Analysis (TA) for understanding your relationships. He believed that TA would increase our capacity for awareness, spontaneity, and intimacy. Eric Berne believed that we all have three parts to our personality known as ego states which influence the outcome of our transactions.
A couple of years ago, while I was waiting on a flight at the Chicago Airport a couple was having an argument. One partner in the relationship said to her significant other that she never should have married him in the first place because she never really loved him. Her spouse tearfully replied, “why did you say that?” Her reply after his tearful question was that I should not have said that because I didn’t mean it; I just wanted to hurt you. If you look closely at her response you will note three different parts to it: one part reminds him that what he did was wrong (Parent); another part observes his assertion and checks out how true it is (Adult); and the third part acts out strong feelings regardless of the facts (Child). In Eric Berne’s theory, we all have a parent, adult, and child ego state. However, how effective we are in getting what we want depends a lot on how we use these parts in our transactions.

Allow Space
Allow space for your student to set the agenda for some of your conversations. If he or she needs help or support, the subject is more likely to come up if you aren’t inquiring pointedly about what time he or she came in last night. Your role is to listen actively and try to understand what they are saying or trying to say. Change your role from boss to consultant.

“Help!”/“Don’t Help!”
It is sometimes frustrating for parents/guardians to go through the growth process with their students, not knowing how to be helpful and receiving messages that are unclear or incomplete. Students may add to the uncertainty by changing rapidly. As a parent/guardian, it can be difficult to know when to help, when to step back, and how worried to get. Usually your best guideline is to provide a steady, supportive home base while recognizing that there will be ups and downs in your student’s needs and expectations. Try to follow the lead of your student and help them balance their thoughts and emotions to make their best decisions. Let them know that you respect their right to decide and that you will serve as an advisor when asked. Remind yourself to notice and appreciate the new skills they develop; students often want their families to recognize their progress toward becoming adults

According to Robert R. Carkhuff, “you can’t get there from here.” Socially, the easiest step, presence, is also the step most people miss. Carkhuff believed that if we want to have meaningful relationships with others, we must be present with them. If we do not attend, we communicate to others that they do not matter. We also fail to learn what it is they have to offer. Attending is the necessary precondition of truly communicating and supporting your student. When your student engages be sure to prepare yourself to be present, which simply means engaging them, informing them of your availability, and encouraging them to use you to help. Additionally, facilitate open communication by positioning yourself to be face to face with your student. After you have established preparing to be present with your student, the next step is to attend personally. Attending personally is simply communicating your interest in your student. Attending personally also involves positioning yourself so that you can give your full and undivided attention to your student. Leaning forward or toward them and making eye contact with them. Now, the next step after attending personally is observing, which involves you paying attention to the nonverbal behavior of your student. When you’re observing aspects of your student’s appearance and behavior it will allow you to infer your student’s physical energy level and their emotional feeling. The last step toward an effective communication experience is listening. When you give your student your full and undivided attention you are preparing to listen to their verbal expressions. The more you attend to the external cues presented by your student, the more effectively you can listen to the internal cues reflecting their inner experiences. However, it will be very important for you to suspend the following premature solutions, personal attitudes, personal values. Furthermore, you will need to pay attention to common themes, as well as verbal and nonverbal expressions.

As your student becomes more self-sufficient, their reliance on you will begin to change. As well as their needs, the freedom to formulate personal goals and plans will also face transformation. Your ability to be flexible will be a steadying influence on their change. They will need the courage to experience the ups and downs of new challenges with the knowledge that you will be there to help. Rather than creating a situation in which a battle ensues, seeking a compromise that honors both the family’s needs and the growing independence of the student might be an appropriate goal.


About Author

David Graham, Ph.D., is the Director of Center for Student Health and Well-Being. His clinical interests include issues related to identity development and working with students from traditionally marginalized and oppressed identities, trauma and mindfulness and relationship issues.

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