Written By: Dayna Weintraub


The media is replete with discussions of parenting and education.  There are stories of the overly involved helicopter parent who smothers the child, and there’s the controversial tiger mom riding their child hard to supposed success.  But the truth is these are anecdotes, based on a few sensational stories or someone trying to sell a book.  The reality of parenting a college student is, as you surely know, more complicated and nuanced.  Your goal is to ensure a successful college experience for your child, with academic, social and psychological growth.

While academic goals are often the focus of college discussions, a lesser known psychological crisis exists, with matriculating college students reporting ever lower levels of emotional well-being, declining consistently over the past 25 years, according to a national survey of college students (Pryor, Hurtado, DeAngelo, Palucki Blake & Tran, 2011).  Furthermore, emotional well-being continues to wane during the first year of college (Sax, Bryant, & Gilmartin, 2004).  The story is even worse for women, as there is a persistent gender gap, with women consistently reporting lower levels of emotional health than men (Pryor et al., 2011).  Parents should be aware of these trends and understand the factors that influence your student’s emotional health as well as academic achievement.

In order to better understand the connection between parental communication and emotional well-being, researchers in the Graduate School of Education & Information Studies, in collaboration with the Office of Residential Life and the Student Affairs Information and Research Office, examined the differences between women and men’s perceptions of their communication with their parents and its connection to emotional health.

UCLA students reported phone, text messaging, and email were the three most common modes used to communicate with their parents. Overall, women communicate more often with their parents than men, particularly with their mothers.  Specifically, women were more likely than men to talk with their mothers on the phone.  In regards to gender differences in the frequency of communication with parents, 28% of women spoke by phone to their mothers at least once a day, compared to only 15% of men.  Though the rates were much lower than communicating with their mothers, women were more likely than men to communicate with their fathers at least daily.

In contrast to the images of parents hovering over the college-children’s affairs, UCLA students tend to be satisfied with the amount of communication that they have with their parents.  Overall, the vast majority of students reported that they have “just the right amount” of communication with their mothers.  However, students were somewhat less satisfied with their level of communication with fathers: 62.1% of men and only 50.4% of women are satisfied with the current level of communication, with most of the remaining students reported that current levels were less than desired.  Most women and men were either satisfied with how much they currently interacted with their parents, or they wished they could interact more, especially when it comes to daughters seeking more communication with their fathers.

Analyzing the connection between emotional well-being and college environment, including parental communication, suggested that the biggest aid to positive emotional well-being is for students to develop close friendships and feel at home on campus (Astin, 1993b).  Communication with parents also contributes positively to a sense of well-being for students who view their parents as supportive, interested, helpful, nonintrusive and uncritical; this is especially true for mothers with daughters and fathers with sons.  There is thus evidence that same-gender pairings are especially pivotal to students in college.

While the quality of student-parent interactions is unsurprisingly linked with positive emotional health, the effects of quantity of interaction are less clear.  There is some indication that the more female students communicate with their mothers, the lower their sense of emotional well-being.  Women tend to benefit emotionally by developing a sense of independence and high levels of continued communication may slow that process, or alternately, it may simply indicate that those female students under emotional strain look for more communication with their mothers.

To summarize, results suggest that UCLA students are generally happy with their parent communication, and that the most important thing for them to achieve emotional health is to find a welcoming social environment on campus.  Communication that is supportive and uncritical, particularly with the same-gender parent is also beneficial.  Your childs’ emotional well-being is important and you can do things to help ensure it will be a positive aspect of their college experience.

Astin, A. W. (1993b).  What matters in college?  Four critical years revisited.  San Francisco:  Jossey-Bass.
Pryor, J. H., DeAngelo, L., Palucki Blake, L., Hurtado, S., & Tran, S. (2011). The American freshman: National norms fall 2011. Los Angeles: Higher Education Research Institute, UCLA.
Sax, L. J., Bryant, A. N., & Gilmartin, S. K. (2004). A longitudinal investigation of emotional health among male and female first-year college students. Journal of the First-Year Experience, 16, 39-65.