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Home for the Holidays: Positive Communication Skills for Addressing Hard Conversations with College Aged Children

Written by Shelby Cranshaw
Published on December 3, 2018

The holiday season marks the return home of college students for winter break. For most it’s the first extended period, in some time, to get to spend with parents, siblings, and friends from home. While it’s often a celebratory time with reunions, a completed college semester, and the holiday festivities, returning home can also be a time for difficult conversations.

Parents have an opportunity to thoroughly check in with their college-aged children and have an honest conversation about how the semester went. When students are away from home, it’s easy for them to gloss over the things that aren’t going well. While it’s hard for parents to assess how their child is doing. Parents might have suspicions that their child has been struggling while away at school and unsure how they are coping.

If you are a parent who is planning to address concerns about a college student’s mental health, substance use, academics, or just general well being there are some important ideas to keep in mind to ensure positive communication.


Be Brief. While many tough conversations happen without any notice, there are some we know are going to happen. If you are a parent with concerns about your child’s wellbeing at school, you already know that you need to start a conversation with them over winter break. You are more likely to say precisely what you mean when you have the chance to think about what you want to say. Prepare and rehearse what you want to say, so your child clearly understands your central message. Use these skills to ensure you don’t get off track and stay brief. Tangents and irrelevant topics will only dilute the point you need to communicate.

Be Specific. During your conversation, refer to specific behaviors that you have noticed throughout the semester that have given you the reason to be concerned. It’s easy for your child to brush off what you are saying if it’s a bunch of vague thoughts and feelings. If you refer to specific behaviors, it will be harder for your child to ignore your concerns.

Be Positive. Having a conversation about behavioral health issues are difficult to start and to be on the receiving end of. Try to use positive language that tells your child what you do want, not what you don’t want. Instead of telling them to stop doing a behavior, point out the positives and look for ways to build off those strengths. This will frame the conversation as supportive and doable, rather than critical. Your child is less likely to go on the defensive if you present your ideas in a positive way.

Label Your Feelings. Describing your emotions about a situation can provoke an empathetic and considerate response from your child. However, you have to be careful about how you state your feelings. If you’re furious about your child’s spending and substance use at school, try to say you are frustrated and worried instead. Try to tone down strong feelings so you aren’t perceived as accusing your child of something.

Offer an Understanding Statement. You don’t want to put your child on the defensive; that conversation will not have a successful result. Instead, you want your child to feel like you understand why they are expressing these worrisome behaviors. Start with, “I know that college is not easy…” Trying to understand your child’s perspective will also build your own empathy.

Take Partial Responsibility. Nobody wants to feel like they are facing a problem alone. Your child will likely have a less defensive response if they feel like you are willing to tackle the problem with them. Saying “We’re in this together,” doesn’t take the blame. Instead, it communicates that your child is not alone.

Offer to Help. Ask your child if they would like help from you. This communicates that you are supporting them and willing to problem-solve with them. Consider asking, “When you are at school, would it be helpful if I checked in with you more often?” Or, “Would it be helpful if we find a therapist you can talk to when you are at school?” By doing this, you can improve communication and come up with solutions together.


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