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College Roommate Conflicts: Tips for Parents and Kids

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Updated on Nov 22, 2011

Is your college kid and her roommate always compared to Monica and Rachel on Friends, or are they more like Tom and Jerry? According to a survey conducted by Brown University last year, about 30% of college freshman were not satisfied with their dorm-mates.

As a licensed mental health counselor who works with many college kids, Susan Fee sees the struggle every year. In her book “My Roommate is Driving Me Crazy!” she offers advice for parents and kids on how to deal with everything from a personality clash to a potentially violent roommate.

Fee says that roommate clashes can be common for students who haven’t spent time away from home, or shared their space with siblings. “Living on their own or the first time is very jolting, and not something they’re prepared for. They start comparing the new life to home, and since they don’t like it, it never measures up. They always want to go back home again, but that just doesn’t help at all.”

Not all hope is lost. Here are some tips for a kid who’s in a less-than-stellar living situation.

What Parents Can Do:

Remain calm. “Parents should be prepared for what I call the ‘dump call.’  That’s the phone call in which your child “dumps” all the complaints on your. After having a chance to vent, the kids are fine but the parents are up all night worrying,” says Fee. Don’t slip into panic mode at once. It’s tempting to call up the school requesting a room change, or buy your child a ticket home for the weekend, but these don’t solve the problem. You can be supportive and acknowledge what she’s saying without taking drastic action.

Keep them on the path to independence. When your child complains, asking ‘What do you want to do about it?’ will show that there is a solution and that your child is the one finding it. Even if it’s painful to watch your child struggle on her own, she’s an adult at this point. “Parents have to realize that everything is confidential in college—they can’t talk to counselors, access their child’s grades or mediate their conflicts,” says Fee. Kelci Lynn Lucier, college advisor and education blogger for About.com agrees. “The only time I'd recommend a parent call is if there’s some worry about safety, like if they’re doing drugs or being violent.”

Point to Positives. Fee recommends encouraging kids by focusing on what they know how to do well. When kids are reeling from a negative situation, sometimes it’s comforting to hear the positives. “Remind them of their strengths by saying, ‘This is what I know about you. You are a kind and responsible kid,’ and listing their strengths.” This will keep them grounded and confident when they have to deal with a tough relationship.

What Students Can Do:

Confront the conflict. “Many kids would rather move to their friend’s apartment or live in the hallway than confront a roommate,” says Fee. Contrary to popular belief, going straight to the RA is not going to solve the problem. “The first thing an RA is going to ask when a student comes to them is, ‘What did your roommate say when you brought this up?’ If you haven’t attempted to solve the problem, they won’t be able to help you.

Face time. We don’t mean the new smart phone feature, but rather a good old fashioned conversation. Fee says kids need to ditch the temptation to email or text someone who’s probably sitting in the same room. A face to face talk is the only way to possibly resolve a conflict. “I don’t recommend writing a letter. They are just going to be made fun of or put online to be mocked, and they’re easily misinterpreted.” If you receive a text or note from a difficult roommate, the best thing to do is acknowledge it with a text response and set up a time to talk face to face.

Use RAs to their full potential. If a serious discussion still gets you nowhere, take it to an RA. It’s not a popular choice among students, but they’re trained to deal with your precise problem! As a former RA, Lucier says that “RAs understand what it’s like to be a student but they also go through a ton of training that endows them with knowledge no one else has.” Fee notes the importance of conflict resolution as preparation for the real world. “If you don’t learn how to work with it, you’re not preparing yourself for life. Once you start working, it’s the same system.”

Parents should keep in mind that kids aren’t always going to be best friends with their roommates, and sometimes it’s for the better. Even kids who move in with their best friends might be in for a rude awakening when they start splitting the chores, or dating new people.  Sometimes the student has nothing to do with a conflict, Lucier says. “Anyone and everyone can be a good or bad roommate. It’s not a reflection on you.”

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