One late summer day, I stood in the tiny dorm room that would be my home for the next nine months and stared at the bed across from mine. That's where my roommate would sleep. As an only child who wasn't used to sharing anything, this was an entirely new experience. I'd met her once but ... would I like her in our day-to-day interactions? Would she like me?
I'd heard the horror stories: Kids head off to college, and in addition to dealing with homesickness, they get stuck living with roommate Godzilla.
Although I was nervous, I also felt ready to deal with whatever came my way. That's because my parents did a few things while I was still in high school to help me prepare for dorm life as a college freshman.
Let your teens fill out their housing application
"I'm amazed by how many parents fill out the housing application for their kids," says Jason Stephens, assistant dean of students at Anderson University, a Christian liberal arts school in Anderson, Indiana. According to Stephens, many parents fill out the questionnaire the way they want their kids to be. Your son is messy, but you think he's going to change and mature once he leaves home, so you mark down that he likes things "neat and orderly." Your daughter will undoubtedly go to bed early, you believe, and will be intent on studying hard, so you check off those things.
"Some parents rate their student higher academically, thinking they'll get placed with a student who loves to study and who pushes your child in the right direction," Stephens says, "but that only leads to a poor rooming situation." In fact, Stephens adds, when parents fill out the application the way they think their teen should be, they're actually sabotaging their child's chances of getting along with their new roommate.
Encourage your teen to fill out the application by himself or herself—and to be honest in answering the questions.
Meet the roommate in person before school starts
When I received my future roommate's name and contact information, I hesitated to reach out. I was too shy. Fortunately, my parents nudged me in the right direction. They encouraged me to contact her and see if we could set up a time to connect in person on campus. That was no small sacrifice for my parents, since the school was 280 miles away.
I was uncomfortable at first, but it ended up being a great time. I got to meet her and her parents and see that she wasn't so bad after all. I felt more prepared for the big move.
Texts, Snapchat and Facetime are all great ways to connect to a future roommate, but nothing beats meeting a person face to face to put your teen more at ease.
Practice healthy conflict resolution
If you have multiple children, you know how conflict often ends—with angry voices and slammed doors. But a roommate conflict is different from a heated sibling situation. With siblings, you are there to referee and encourage everyone to apologize and get along. Roommates don't have referees, so the conflict has the potential to go unresolved and breed resentment.
If you haven't already, start encouraging your teen to practice healthy communication so issues don't become toxic and accusatory. Teach him or her that (1) confronting the person is important—rather than having a roommate hear about the frustration through the grapevine—and (2) finding a compromise is the purpose, so always communicate with kindness.
To do this, help your teen think in terms of "I" statements rather than blurting out accusations: "I have a difficult time sleeping while music is playing" instead of "Your music is awful." Remind her that while a roommate may do annoying things, your teen does, too. So offering grace can go a long way.
My freshman year ended up being better than I ever could have imagined. The "sisters" on my floor helped one another battle homesickness, boy troubles and faith doubts. We bonded. So much so that 30 years later I still consider those women some of my dearest friends. We get together every year and laugh, talk, cry, eat and pray. I'm so thankful my parents set the stage for a solid college roommate connection.Ginger Kolbaba is a contributing editor for Focus on the Family magazine and the author of Your Best Happily Ever After.