Kids May Be Away at College, but More Parents Are Keeping Them Close Through Chat

Filed under: Day Care & Education, Gadgets, Empty Nest, Teen Culture, Development: Teens

Parents keep in touch with kids via technology

Is he calling? Oh, it's Mom. Again. Credit: Getty Images

You'll need quarters for the laundry machines. And definitely shower slippers and a bath caddy. Highlighter pens and notebooks? Better stock up on those, too. Oh, and sweetie, whatever you do, please don't you dare forget the most important supply when you're packing for your college dorm: Your cell phone charger.

Mama's gonna be in touch. A lot. Like, all the time. In fact, best take two.

Letting go of your children when they start off to college is never easy, but, thanks to today's ever-improving communication technology, parents can text, e-mail, BBM, Skype and call their little darlings all day long.

Julie Levine, whose daughter Katie Schwartz, 18, left home for college at Johns Hopkins University last fall, says the two text back and forth about 10 times a day.
"We're both on BlackBerry," the New York mother of two who works at a finance and public relations firm tells ParentDish. "I would say 70 to 80 percent of our communication is through BBM (BlackBerry Messenger) and text."

Levine says most of their messages are just checking in with each other to see what's going on.

"If she was sick or something, then we would get on phone -- I'd want to hear her voice," she says.

But while Levine's frequent messaging works for her family, Karen Levin Coburn, author of "Letting Go: A Parent's Guide to Understanding the College Years" and senior consultant in residence at Washington University in St. Louis, tells ParentDish many parents are overusing technology.

"It has become a habit," she says. "Parents today are used to being in touch with their children throughout high school -- using cell phones to check in with them, make plans, ask when they are coming home. Young people have grown up with the expectation that they can always keep in touch with friends -- and parents, too -- especially when they need something."

Coburn says research has shown that more than 75 percent of parents and college students are in touch with each other two or three times a week, and it's not unusual for students and parents to chat -- by phone or computer -- every day, with daughters communicating more than sons.

"We've all read the stories of families chatting away electronically, even while in different rooms in the same house," she says. "So yes, electronic communication is ubiquitous, and most parents need to make a conscious effort to break the habit of constantly checking in -- to honor the reality that this is a big transition, that an important part of going away to college is the opportunity to learn to handle challenges, to develop the ability to solve problems and to grow more independent."

Marjorie Savage, parent program director at the University of Minnesota and author of "You're on Your Own (But I'm Here If You Need Me): Mentoring Your Child During the College Years," says families simply communicate differently than they did a generation ago -- even five years ago.

"While parents often get the blame for too much communication, in my experience, students are more likely to initiate the phone calls, Skype conversations and texting," she tells ParentDish, adding that it's simply part of a family's dynamic to be in close contact.

"As students get ready for college, it's not uncommon for the student to be sure the parent knows how to Skype or gets a Facebook page," she says. "Just a couple of years ago, we asked parents if they texted their students, and very few U of M parents said yes. Most, in fact, said their student was telling them, 'texting is for kids.' Now, 60 percent of U of M parents say they frequently or very frequently text their students."

Setting boundaries when it comes to communicating with a child away at college will most likely fall into place if parents are conscious of thinking about the ultimate goal of the communication, Coburn tells ParentDish.

"It's helpful for parents to ask themselves, why they are calling or texting or e-mailing before they do," she says. "For example, are you calling for a good reason -- some information you want to convey -- perhaps a good deal on an airfare or a new development in the family, or perhaps because a fair amount of time has gone by and you haven't heard from them in over a week and just want to check in? That's fine. On the other hand, are you calling because you are bored or lonely -- or to check to see if they have been studying or have been out late the night before? You probably won't get a straight answer to those questions anyway, and certainly won't be engendering a feeling of trust."

Coburn says parents might also ask themselves why their child is calling or texting them.

"Is she bored and using you to fill in the space?" she says. "Does he want a quick answer to a problem he is perfectly capable of solving himself? Is she turning to you for help -- with course work, or a roommate issue or anything else that faculty and advisors at the college are better equipped to deal with? Is he failing to connect with friends at school and is turning to you as a substitute?"

Of course, a close relationship between parents and young adults can be a good thing, Coburn says.

"However, being close parents doesn't mean filling the social gaps, solving the problems, making the decisions for them," she says. "Casual texts or calls back and forth are common. What matters is not the quantity of the communications, but the substance. Students need space to develop and use the resources on the campuses, to seek answers to problems, to reflect on their new worlds and make decisions about their own lives. They need to take ownership of their education and their college experience."

But many parents aren't willing to give their children that space. A recent study finds having "helicopter" or overprotective parents was associated with being dependent, neurotic and less open, according to a report on LiveScience.

Study researcher Neil Montgomery, a psychologist at Keene State College in New Hampshire, tells LiveScience about 10 percent of the 300 college freshmen surveyed had helicopter parents.

"I'm noticing that the increase in texting is reducing the number of phone calls and e-mails going back and forth, and that may be a good thing," Savage tells ParentDish. "For the most part, students and their parents just need a bit of a check-in on a regular basis: 'Things going OK?' 'Yup, all's good here. Talk to you tomorrow?' 'Sounds good'."

In general, Savage says, it's really not how often parents and their children are touch, but the tenor of their conversations that's important.

"If the student is calling routinely to complain, to ask for help, or with a sense of neediness, it's probably not good," she says. "If a student calls home even a couple of times a day to say how fabulous college is, it's probably not bad."

For Levine, checking in has been a good thing.

"I think it maintained our relationship," she says of messaging with her daughter. "It keeps us connected. It really is a helpful tool, because you don't always want to be talking -- whether I'm at work, or she's in class or working or at the library ... Just to have her text, 'I'm in the library, I'm fine,' I know she's fine and that's a good, reassuring thing."

Related:Is The Helicopter Parent Finally Landing?

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Start by teaching him that it is safe to do so.