Academic Advising Resources


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Bringing the Message Home: Teaching Effective Communication to Students and Parents
Authored by: Shehna Javeed, Kira Bruschke, and E-Lin Chen

Parent-student relationship: the millennial phenomenon
Advisors in college and university settings are keenly aware of the strong relationship between this generation of students and their parents as witnessed by parental presence on campus and as reported by students in individual appointments. Parents are strong advocates for their children and often serve as informal advisors as their students make academic and career decisions. We find that their children welcome this level of involvement. Howe and Strauss (2000) in the book Millennials Rising: The Next Generation noted that Millennials, those born between 1982-2000, want to “feel protected” by their parents. They enjoy close relationships with their parents, strive for “balance” rather than “career success”. They accept their parents’ authority, “bask in the sense of being loved by parents” and rely on their advice for decision-making (pp. 179-186). Family involvement in education is simply second nature to these students.

This generation is in close contact with parents. Winogard and Hais (2008) noted that half of the  Millennials they surveyed said that they “see their parents in person every day”, while in this age of electronic devices, 45% talked with their parents daily (pg.83). At the same time, while this generation enjoys plenty of attention from their elders it is difficult to say if they are thriving or coddled as a result. A Canadian Broadcasting Corporation documentary, “Hyper Parents and Coddled Kids” stated that this generation experiences “higher levels of anxiety than any generation before them.”

The Problem:
How should advisors manage this close student-parent relationship so we can optimize students’ educational experiences?

Advisors generally recognize that these students love and respect their parents and do not want to disappoint them. Common topics in advising sessions include a change of program or career goal, lack of interest in a subject/major, or difficulties with academic performance. At times, students are not interested in the career path set for them by their parents. Reasons can vary for this change of course -- poor grades (e.g., lower grades than needed for entrance to medical school), lack of interest in the subject (e.g., the student likes the arts more than the sciences), misinformation, career or academic confusion, and increased self-awareness – all of these can contribute to a desire for change. This can be stressful for students who already cope with heavy academic demands and are now faced with informing, and potentially letting down, their parents.

The result can be increased anxiety levels for students. The worry of sharing or hiding information from their parents can be intense given the closeness of most relationships. This anxiety can interfere with academic performance and other aspects of students’ lives. It further can be a stumbling block to academic success and career development. 

The Solution: A Two-Pronged Approach

  • Proactively inform parents of incoming students of the challenges their students will face
  • Teach students to communicate effectively with their parents about program and career direction changes

Proactively inform parents of incoming students of the challenges their students will face: Communicate with parents at orientation
At the University of Toronto Scarborough (UTSC) an annual academic orientation called “Get Started” is held for incoming students and their parents. Separate sessions are held for parents while the students are given academic success tips and the logistics for registration. UTSC has developed parent programming whereby parents are apprised of limitations placed upon the university-parent relationship in terms of information sharing and confidentiality. During their orientation sessions, parents are told how they can support their students throughout the academic year and informed about various points within the year where students can experience social, financial or emotional stress. The programming includes tips and useful conversation openers to facilitate dialogue between the parents and students.
Teaching Students to Communicate Effectively
To optimize students’ educational experiences, a dialogue must be created between parents and students. Effective communication can help academic success and career development for the students. Therefore, the second prong of our solution is aimed at equipping students with the communication tools necessary to engage their parents in productive conversations.  The fear of letting their parents down often prevents students from reaching out. To address this, a collaborative workshop led by UTSC advisors and personal counselors was created to teach students effective facilitation strategies for difficult conversations. The purpose of the workshop is to show students that they are not alone; many students struggle with sharing difficult news with parents for fear of disappointing them.

UTSC advisors created a quick tip reminder for good communication as part of the student “toolkit” distributed at the workshop. The acronym SMARTIES was created and is well received by students and colleagues:

S: Show Initiative

M: Manage Anxiety

A: Avoid Judgments

R: Research Options

T: Time it Well

I: I-statements

E: Empathize

S: Seek Support

This acronym is presented to students along with a package of “ Smarties” candy as a reminder of what they learn in the workshop. The first letter of the acronym encourages students to keep their parents informed along the course of the academic term. The more anxiety builds around a situation, the more avoidance and negative self-talk perpetuate anxiety (Bourne, 2005). Students were encouraged to take the first step in dealing with a sensitive issue. This first step for students could include informing themselves of academic regulations, program options, or career options; taking these actions can help students build confidence in approaching their parents and being clear with their message.

Managing anxiety is a barrier that must be overcome by many students and may require referral to a personal counselor. The workshop includes information on recognizing signs of stress and anxiety, and tips for managing stress including deep breathing techniques and talking to friends or professionals about their anxiety.

In many difficult conversations, speakers seek to be right rather than to understand one another (Stone, Patton & Heen, 1999). Students are taught active listening skills along with techniques for empathizing with and validating their parents’ possible concerns. They are further taught to frame their feelings using “I-statements” (e.g., I feel ____________when_____________). This tool can help reduce blame or judgment and helps keep the listener (i.e., parents) from becoming defensive. In addition, students are taught an exercise for developing empathy with their parents.

Students are encouraged to plan how they will approach and dialogue with their parents. They are advised to be equipped with the information and facts needed to clearly articulate their messages and plans to parents. We suggest that students seek career counseling, use career assessments, and meet with academic advisors to clarify their sense of self as they prepare to talk with parents.

UTSC advisors continue to build on this communication approach as we work with students and their parents within legal and advising limits. Advisors continue to foster programming that promotes open communication between parents and students using the two-pronged solution outline provided here. Students’ successful educational experiences not only require sound program information and advice from advisors, but needs innovative student development initiatives to meet the changing milieu of the parent-student relationship in the academic setting.

Authored by:
Shehna Javeed, Academic Advisor
Kira Bruschke, Career Counsellor
E-Lin Chen, Career Counsellor
Academic Advising & Career Centre, University of Toronto Scarborough

References and Annotated Bibliography

Cote, James. E. (2007). A University System in Crisis Toronto, Ontario: University of Toronto Press

  • The book is a critical analysis of the educational system and the steady rise in the need to acquire a university degree since the 1950s in order to have a middle-class life. Of particular interest in this context is the increased reliance on parents as supporters and advisors of students’ education.

Bartlett, Sharon and LaRose, Maria, Hyper Parents and Coddled Kids, Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, Dreamfilm Productions, Feb 4, 2010

  • The documentary examines the current phenomenon of increased parental involvement in the university students’ education. It suggests that despite the increased support, this generation of students experience increased anxiety. Are the students supported or coddled?

Howe, Niel & Strauss, William (2000 ) Millennials Rising: The Next Great Generation New York, NY: Vintage Books

  • The book does a thorough analysis of the characteristics of the generation born between 1982 and 2000 and the parents who support them. It is a highly regarded book that is often referenced in millennial analysis.

Morrow, H.E. (2009) Constructing I-Statements. Hope Morrow’s Trauma Central. Retrieved from

  • This website includes information on communication strategies such as active listening and I-statements. The I-statement section provides examples of how to use these statements appropriately and effectively.

Difficult Conversations: how to discuss what matters most. New York: Penguin Group.

  • The authors discuss strategies for making difficult conversations in any context more productive and less stressful.

Verhaagen, Dave (2005) Parenting the Millennial Generation: Guiding our Children born between 1982 and 2000 Westport CI:Praeger Publishers.

  • The authors discuss factors that contribute to parents being “protective” of the Millennial generation and discusses the cultural shifts in parenting and societal factors.

Cite this resource using APA style as:

Javeed, S., Bruschke, K., & Chen, E. (2010). Bringing the Message Home: Teaching Effective Communication to Students and Parents. Retrieved from NACADA Clearinghouse of Academic Advising Resources Website

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