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What are they talking about?

Barriers to parent-college student communication

We know that University of Minnesota students and their parents are in touch frequently. A 2008 survey of U of M parents showed that nearly a quarter of families are in touch at least once a day, and two-thirds are communicating multiple times a week.

Minnesota families are not unusual in their close contact. According to a Pew Research Center report (2007), 82 percent of 18–24 year olds were "in touch with their parents yesterday," and half had seen their family within the previous week. The Pew Research Center report indicates that 64 percent of 18–24 year olds turn to their families for advice and rely on them for financial assistance, running errands, and help with chores.

Jodi Dworkin, associate professor in the University"s Department of Family Social Science says that parent-college student communication smooths the transition to college and promotes student success.

Unfortunately there"s little research on what parents and students are talking about, what their communication needs are, or what might be barriers to family communication.

Last year, Dworkin worked with the Minnesota Parents Association and University Parent Program to survey parents about topics that are difficult to discuss with their student, why those topics are challenging, and what would help facilitate discussions on them. Nearly 1,000 parents completed the online survey.

Parents say the most challenging topics to talk about are sex (29.0 percent), romantic relationships (16.8 percent), finances (14.6 percent), mental health (7.0 percent), academics (4.5 percent), and religion (4.5 percent).

Parents of female students find finances, friends, and sexual assault more difficult to discuss than do parents of male students. Parents of male students find sex and romantic relationships more difficult to discuss than do parents of female students.

Parents' number one barrier to discussion is concern that it will make their student uncomfortable.

Other barriers include:

  • Concern that the conversation will turn into an argument
  • Being uncomfortable
  • Believing that the student won't want to talk about the topic
  • Lacking information
  • Not wanting to upset the student

Parents say it would be easier to discuss a topic if the student were to bring it up, if they had a list of talking points about the topic, or if they'd heard an expert speak on it.

Understanding the barriers to parent-college student communication is a critical step toward providing practical support for college students. However, different topics have different barriers. We cannot just work on improving parent-college student communication in general; topic-specific information is essential.

The Minnesota Parents Association and Parent Program have developed topic-specific resources for parents, including talking points unique to a subject. For example, the Parents Association worked with family social science graduate student Chelsea Petree to develop a web page discussing relationships, sex, and sexuality.

While the project allowed Petree to work on a project related to her studies, it was more than just an academic exercise. "In my own experiences," Petree says, "I've definitely seen the struggle between wanting to communicate with parents about difficult topics and just feeling too embarrassed to bring it up. My hope for this website was to give parents a starting point in breaking down barriers and opening communication lines with their students."

The Parents Association also revisited Web-based information on college finances and worked with the College of Education and Human Development to update and provide easy accessibility to the seminar for parents: College Finances ( The seminar provides data about college students and debt, discusses University of Minnesota resources, and provides talking points on credit cards, budgeting, and spending habits.

The Parent Program is considering additional ways to promote discussion. As Dworkin reminds us, "Parents are critical to college student success. If parents don't talk about sensitive topics because they don't want to make their student uncomfortable, we need to support families to make those discussions easier."