Coaching Healthy Roommate Relationship Skills


What advice do you have for helping older kids get along with new roommates?
As older children and adolescents prepare for camp and college during the next few months, much attention is devoted to packing, selecting activities, choosing classes, and so on.  Little or no concern is typically paid to one vital area that may be the deciding factor in determining if the experience is a positively enriching one or a troubling encounter with interpersonal incompatibility: healthy roommate skills.  Without proper relationship tools and a realistic mindset about building a compatible roommate relationship the experiences to come can be significantly overshadowed by the negativity of living with someone who feels more like a foe than a friend. 
If these concerns resonate with your worries as you prepare your child for their next step, consider sharing the following coaching tips with them:
First impressions are extremely influential. Building a compatible roommate relationship begins early and requires flexibility, compromise, and empathy. The foundation for a healthy roommate relationship is laid in the early verbal exchanges and the extent to which each person shows a willingness to consider the wishes and feelings of the other. Avoiding rigid preferences shows flexibility, accepting less than one expects shows compromise, and demonstrating awareness of the sensitivities of the other displays empathy. This plays out in early interactions about the room layout, discussions about plans, and even the way each person interacts with those around them.
Attend to the pivotal issues that are possibly divisive so that they don’t go from minor speed bump to huge roommate barrier. Eating the popcorn that belongs to the other person, turning up the music volume too loud, or borrowing something without permission, can all trigger resentment.  When these and other infractions occur they must be handled in a forthright and apologetic manner.  Stress the importance of not assuming things without checking them out and refraining from discussions that appear to make the other person uncomfortable. This requires getting an early read on their roommate’s comfort level with deep discussion, meeting new people, leaving the door open to others walking in, and so on.
Utilize trusted adults, such as family members, when unsure about how best to proceed with a roommate who sends cryptic signals or responds in a uncompromising manner.  Using a parent as a sounding board and enlisting advice when confused by roommate based circumstances is an extremely helpful step. It can be very difficult to figure out the best plan of action when confronted by situations your child has never faced in the past. Stress the importance of getting the advice of others who are outside of the circumstances so that these discussions will not be shared with the roommate.
An assertive, yet non-confrontational, approach to minor disagreements/disappointments regarding the roommate’s behavior can have a positive effect upon the relationship. As long as the issues are handed with verbal tact and proper timing, even awkward subjects can be addressed without relationship damage. Have your older child practice good word choice and friendly attitude when rehearsing how to broach a delicate topic. Stress the importance of trying to see the issue through the eyes of their roommate and introducing the topic by expressing their awareness of how the roommate may feel about a certain matter.
Dr Steven Richfield is a child psychologist and author in Plymouth Meeting. Contact him at 610-238-4450 or