How to help your student handle roommate problems

It’s late in the evening when you get an unexpected mid-week call from your first-year college student. Recently he hasn’t had much good to say about his roommate (the guy is noisy, inconsiderate, a slob, you name it), and now he tells you he’s had it. He can’t stand it another day — he wants to move to a new room NOW.

Take a deep breath, and advise your student to do the same.

For many college students, living in residence halls or off-campus apartments is their first experience being away from home, and for some it’s also the first time dealing with a roommate. Conflicts small and large are bound to occur as students learn to work and live together in a small shared space.

When our students are upset, it can be hard to keep our own emotions under wraps, but at a moment like this, a parent’s job is to encourage a student to deal with this roommate conflict — like all interpersonal issues — in a mature, intentional manner. Easier said than done, of course — most of us are still working on these skills well into middle age! The silver lining for your student is that learning how to handle a roommate conflict will help him develop skills that will be valuable in personal and professional relationships all through his life.

Here are suggestions for talking your student through common roommate problems

Remember, too, that though you may be far away, there is support for your student on site — colleges and universities employ trained staff known as RAs (Resident Advisors/Assistants) or HDs (Hall Directors) to help mediate disagreements and facilitate healthy and productive friendships.

Press the pause button. 

Discussions held in the heat of the moment can quickly escalate into arguments that are difficult to fix. Help your student by stressing the importance of a cool-off period. This isn’t the same thing as being passive. Concerns should be addressed, but with a level head.

More communication can be better communication.

A lack of communication is at the heart of many roommate conflicts. Encourage your student to talk openly and honestly with his roommate. Discussing expectations and experiences can go a long way toward defusing a situation and resolving the conflict. If things have gotten too awkward or tense, it can be a great time to seek out the support of the RA or HD.

List the specific roommate problems.

Counsel your student to be specific when discussing roommate conflicts. Breaking the problem down into smaller, more manageable parts can help. The crux of the issue could be something as simple as a personal habit or scheduling issue — easily resolved with some flexibility and direct communication.

Be willing to negotiate.

Negotiation skills serve us well throughout life. Urge your student to be willing to negotiate and give some ground where appropriate. Roommate conflicts are a two-way street — being able to compromise is key to forging a better relationship.

Consider a roommate contract.

In some cases it’s helpful to have all expectations spelled out in black and white. A roommate contract may be just the thing to pull your student and his roommate through this difficult patch (and help them avoid more conflict in the future).

Many colleges include a sample roommate contract on the residential life website page — RAs and HDs can assist with this, too.

Thankfully, by the time you and your student hang up the phone, you’ve both calmed your heart rates a bit. You’ve listened patiently, heard your student’s side of the story, and had an opportunity to coach him through a tough spot. You’ve let him know you’re confident he can handle the challenge of working things out with his roommate. Now you can both get some sleep.