DEAR ABBY: I am a licensed counselor and adjunct faculty member in communications. I hope you will help me get a message out to parents who are sending their children off to college this fall. Every semester, I see kids who have a miserable college experience due to roommate conflicts. Some students become so distracted that their grades suffer, and some actually move back home.
A successful college experience requires both academic and social skills. Parents can prepare their children by teaching them the vital social skill of settling differences before they become overwhelming. This will not only help them make their college years successful, but also the rest of their lives.
I offer five tips for parents:
(1) OFFER SUGGESTIONS, NOT SOLUTIONS. Help your children become critical thinkers by imagining scenarios, considering possible outcomes and brainstorming solutions. Conflict resolution is a skill that needs to be practiced. Telling your children what to do -- or worse, handling the problem for them -- does more harm than good because it creates dependency.
(2) PREPARE FOR CONFLICT: Teach your child that conflict does not have to be negative; it can also be an opportunity to think creatively. Conflict is inevitable because people are different. Even best friends can have differences in needs, living habits, stress levels and communication skills.
(3) SHARE EXPECTATIONS. The more that's discussed beforehand, the better the relationship. Roommate contracts are popular today, and many universities require them as a way to get kids talking about their expectations. Encourage your child to discuss things like sleep and study habits, bills, sharing items, cleaning, and the best times to have visitors.
(4) ENCOURAGE FACE-TO-FACE CONVERSATIONS. More and more kids today would rather communicate through e-mail, IM and text-messaging rather than face-to-face. Without the benefit of facial expressions, tone of voice and body language, messages can be misunderstood. Also, warn kids that gossiping to others instead of talking directly to their roommate only escalates problems.
(5) ASK FOR HELP BEFORE THE SITUATION BECOMES CRITICAL. Residence life staff will help to mediate, as long as the student has already tried problem-solving face-to-face. (Unfortunately, too many students wait to mention that there's a problem until they want to move out, or, at the first sign of trouble, they report it to their RA expecting that person to solve it.) Campus counseling centers are also available for help if a roommate is exhibiting signs of mental illness such as depression, substance abuse or cutting. In addition, a counseling session can help your child learn to deal with stress and find better ways to manage the situation. -- SUSAN FEE, AUTHOR OF "MY ROOMMATE IS DRIVING ME CRAZY!"
DEAR SUSAN: From time to time over the years, I have received mail from students complaining about "the roommate from hell." And you're right, too often people (of all ages) wait until the situation becomes critical before asking for help. I hope your suggestions will help parents to have some important conversations with their children before they fly the nest, because the subject is too important to cover in just one session. On their behalf, I thank you for writing.