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To Text Or Not To Text? That Is The Question

Exactly how often SHOULD you reach out to your college kid?

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Woman Relaxing At Home While Reading On Her Smartphone
Jovo Jovanovic/Stocksy
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I know my college-age daughter will reach out in advance to schedule coffee with me the next time she’s back. She has been consistently great about prompting time together, and yet — I’ll just as certainly spit out my coffee while reading her text scrambling to confirm, moved again by her thoughtfulness.

Her faithful pitch-perfect outreach reminds me of the tension I’ve felt ever since she left for college. The tension spans the spectrum, after all, to be too aggressive or too restrained when reaching out as parents.

Both being wrong, of course. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t. This weird tension started immediately after she, our firstborn, left for college. My husband and I promised each other not to reach out “too much.” Oh, no. Under no circumstance should we be tempted to reach out via text or Snapchat to “check in.” Nope, it would come off as too invasive. Just wait for the invitation.

We felt the tension as parents, but did she?

She eventually confronted us. Why was it, she asked, that she was always the one to request to FaceTime? Why didn’t we initiate the call? Why was it always on her? Weren’t we thinking about her? Didn’t we miss her?

Space. I told her we wanted to give her space. To be herself, to grow into her friend-group away from our influence. To be herself without us circling ’round about classes, about her day.

I also told her there were no guarantees we were going about it in the right way.

We likely were s*** at this season of parenting, for all we knew. It was weird, after all, to adapt to this foreign relationship with this independent person, once known as Our Dependent Child.

Heart exploding, I followed up with a text:

“When you were growing up we would remind you that we had never done the parenting thing before. We’d ask for your patience — beg for it. Dad and I feel it all over again — in that we have never parented or been in a friendship with an adult child. Thanks for showing patience with us all over again. The relationship has changed — we can’t go back to you being the kid. And we really admire you! So proud of the person you’ve blossomed into.”

In fact, says author and therapist Lisa Leshaw, freshly retired after 38 years of counseling adolescents and women, “[d]espite having to acknowledge that college-bound teens earned their wings, thus the space to exist without constant parental contact, it turns out that during this transition, young adults tend to need their parents more than ever before.” She says they’re wavering like jelly.

Leshaw, who now conducts workshops for midlife women, suggests casually broaching the topic in advance.

Start with, she says, “ ‘Your Dad and I want to respect your independence and your privacy. We don't want to interfere although we would love to text on a regular basis.’ ” Verbalizing the reluctance to hover puts that parental angst often felt out in the open.

Your teen won’t admit it, but they’ll be relieved to hear this. She says to expect the proverbial eye-rolling, but consider it’s all for show. Next, they’ll agree to some regularity of communication, acting like they’re doing you a favor.

Leshaw says, “In truth, they're reassured in advance knowing they can count on you being a welcomed and constant 'presence.' ” End the conversation offering to reduce communication if ever they feel it has grown invasive. Leshaw, who has written about her decades working with teens and parents, advises putting the ball in their court by telling them, “ ‘[we] need you to tell us so that we can take a step back.’ ”

Having this conversation, Leshaw points out, will establish parameters at the outset.

That’s the bottom line: Open, lubricated communication lines about “the communication,” because too much vs. too little puts everyone in equally tenuous positions.

I’m thinking what you’re thinking. If only there were a surefire equation for how much is just right. But alas, it’s a new dance and it’s easy to step on each other’s toes. Knowing your child and summoning every ounce of EQ will help tremendously.

At some point if, like me, you get called out by your college student, thank God, you have the chance to say what matters most: I’m sorry. I’m new at this thing called being a parent to an adult kid and I’m struggling. All I can promise, is that I’ll do my best.

This posture of humility, I think, is the most important thing you can communicate to your college kid. After all, they’re struggling to adjust to a new stage of life and need to hear that you are, too.

Kathryn Streeter’s writing has appeared in publications including the Washington Post, The Week and Paste magazine. Find her at