Communicating with Adult Children After They Leave Home: Striking a Healthy Balance

Leaving home doesn’t mean leaving behind regular communication between young adult children and their parents. According to educators from the University of Wisconsin-Extension, studies show that even after a child leaves home for life on their own, a high level of communication continues between parents and their young adult children. “College students typically communicate with their parents around 13 times per week,” says digital parenting education specialist, Anne Clarkson. First-generation and Hispanic college students tend to communicate with their families even more frequently.

Many parents wish they could communicate with their child more often. Parents may feel their conversation is one-sided if their calls, texts, and personal messages are rarely returned. While parents may want longer and more frequent communication with their children, too much can undermine the early adulthood or college experience and minimize a young person’s ability to make their own choices.

“One of the major developmental tasks for older adolescents and young adults is to learn to navigate the world of responsibilities and relationships separately from their parents,” says Kristin Bruder, Dunn County Family Living Educator. “But rest assured, parents—you are still needed.”

Impulse control and planning abilities continue to develop through the early 20s, while adolescents still benefit from regular contact with parents to help and guide them.

Striking a balance

How can parents and their young adult children develop a healthy communication balance? And how can parents encourage more communication when it feels as if their teen is shutting them out?

Whether a child is in high school or has already left home, Clarkson suggests parents use several tactics to keep the communication lines open.

  • Start early and practice the kind of communication you value long before your child leaves home. “Have house rules for technology that everyone (even mom and dad) follows,” says Clarkson. “For instance, no phones at meals. Reiterate that you expect the rules to continue when your child is home to visit.”
  • Set a game plan and be clear about your expectations. How often do you expect to talk? What is the best method for communicating? Use this as an opportunity to explore what would make you both feel valued. Be sure to talk about what’s working and what’s not throughout your child’s college years.
  • Be sensitive to your child’s preferred style of communication, as well as your own. Many adolescents are uncomfortable with talking on the phone but love to communicate via other forms of communication. “Your child is probably communicating with old and new friends on social media platforms and checking these regularly,” says Clarkson. “Many of these platforms have direct messaging options so the conversations are not public—you can even send photos.”
  • Get the most out of your one-way communication. Send texts that don’t need a response (“Hey, I was thinking of you. Hope your test went well.”). Positive, supportive communication raises the odds that your child will contact you because they want to—not because they feel they have to.
  • Use other ways to let your child know you are thinking about her or him. Using “snail mail” can be especially meaningful to your child because these communications aren’t as common.
  • If you notice changes in your child, there may be problems. “The pressures of college can be overwhelming and your child may need additional support. If your child seems withdrawn, anxious, or sad keep the lines of communication open. Be positive and nonjudgmental and help your child seek out campus resources,” says Clarkson.

Parents carry the initial burden in establishing a lifelong habit of communication with their adult children.  It’s important for parents to be patient and persistent.  Even if responses are rare, keep reaching out with positive support.  Letters, cards, packages, emails, phone calls and texts are all ways to keep in touch.

Strive to find a balance between giving adult children their own space and maintaining a sure and secure connection to parents.

To learn more about parenting, co-parenting, step-parenting and healthy relationships, contact mary.wood@ces.uwex.edu or 608-685-6252 or 715-672-5214.