Written by Doctor G

How to Connect with Your College Student

Woman Turning HeadHow to stay close to a 20 year old in college at a competitive school who is distancing himself a lot? How do you know when to worry? Even when we talk, it spirals a lot. I tried saying, “Oh, c’mon, we don’t fight anymore, we’re so beyond that.”

Anonymous, in CA

Congratulations on having an adult son who is working academically at an advanced level. That is a big accomplishment for him!

Let’s talk about your most pressing question first. “How do you know when to worry?” My first question to you is: About what might you worry? Are you worried that he is hiding something dangerous? Or just worried that your relationship is changing? Are you concerned that he doesn’t want to talk or that this is a sign of something deeper?

For teens and young adults, warning signs of risky behaviors include changes in:

  • Peer group
  • Spending habits
  • Academic achievement
  • Sports or other performance
  • Eating and sleeping habits
  • Personality or attitude

The challenge of having young adult children who move out? Most of these things change just do to the new circumstances of being at college or in an apartment! So you have to go with your gut and ask a lot of questions, even though they won’t be welcomed. If you see excessive spending or a big attitude change, don’t be put off from getting some concrete answers.

Be really up front about your concerns, saying something like “We’re having a lot of conflict and I don’t know why. I’m worried that you’re struggling with something.”

If you are not concerned about a dangerous situation, but are disturbed by the change in your dynamic, be honest about that. Remember, your son is an adult now and deserves to be treated like one. If he is being disrespectful, say so. If he is not disrespectful but simply distant, approach this conversation the way you would with any adult family member.

Think about:

  1. Timing. Try to avoid high-stress times (finals or when you know he is working on something big), or when he might need to cut the conversation short for a prior commitment – even dinner at the dining hall.
  2. Environment. If you can do this face-to-face you’ll have a much better chance of a true connection.
  3. Talk about yourself. Avoid accusations, talk about your own feelings and hopes. “I hope to transition to a more adult relationship with you.”
  4. Ask questions. “What do you need from me so we can decrease conflict?”

Chances are really good that your son would also like to have a positive relationship with you. These steps, assuming nothing risky is going on, are likely to get you closer!

Parenting adult kids is a completely new ballgame. Talk to friends who have made the transition and get yourself some support, just like you did when he was little! And, please, let me know how it’s going.


Anyone have any suggestions for making this transition?

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