How to Help Your Teen Survive a Bad College Roommate Situation

After the emotional blur of freshman year, we felt confident as we prepared for my daughter Emily’s sophomore year drop-off. We never anticipated that she would experience roommate issues as a seasoned sophomore. That drama was for freshmen, right? And, given that my daughter (an only child) had survived freshman year in a forced triple, where they barely had room for three beds, how could the living situation NOT get better?

On the surface, the living situation appeared ideal. Emily’s new roommate was one of her closest friends from freshman year, Sarah. The two would live in a double room that was a virtual palace compared to the microscopic, charmless cell Emily inhabited freshman year. Emily was also in a newer dorm across the street from most of her classes — another bonus.

Over the summer, Emily and Sarah happily collaborated on decorating the room and who was bringing what snacks. During move-in, the two girls were uber-productive in their first few hours, immediately changing the room layout to maximize storage. We snapped photos, congratulating the girls on their creativity.

My daughter’s room was next to the RA’s room on the floor (we thought this was great; my daughter was not so pleased). As we drove home after dropping Emily off, we were relieved that at least all was well on the dorm front.

What could possibly go wrong with such a set-up?

Imagine my surprise when my daughter texted me a few months later to say she “hated Sarah” and needed to change roommates ASAP. I never did learn exactly what happened and why things deteriorated so quickly from what had seemed to be the model roommate situation.

friends who are roommates
It can be a mistake to assume that a good friend can make a good roommate. (Twenty20 @criene)


Certainly, one of college students’ biggest mistakes is expecting their best friend to be a good college roommate. Just because someone makes a very good friend does not mean they will make a good roommate. Because Emily and Sarah were already friends, they had high expectations, which may have set them up for failure. Regardless of what led to the relationship’s disintegration, changing roommates was not an option, so the two had to grit it out for the rest of the year.

Surviving a bad college roommate situation

1. Don’t be passive-aggressive

In other words, if there is a conflict, address it, don’t just make snarky side comments. According to my daughter, both roommates were guilty of this sin. Instead of articulating what was bothering them, such as open Tupperware containers or wet towels on the floor, they resorted to snippy notes and texts.

Because teens grew up with electronic communications, it’s especially hard for them to address confrontation face-to-face. And, it can be scary in such close quarters. Ultimately, while my daughter dreaded these in-person conversations, she found they effectively cleared the air. It was easier to be polite, looking Sarah in the eye, rather than firing off an emotional text without thinking through the ramifications. Living with a roommate by definition, means it’s not inconvenient to sit down and have face-to-face conversations.

2. Get some space

While this seems obvious, finding a “safe space” to go versus constantly hanging out in the room together is another option to decrease tension. In some cases, it was the library (according to my daughter — ha) — certainly, in other cases, it was the room of a trusted friend on another floor.

Because Emily and Sarah shared some of the same friends, they found it awkward to have them in the room as tensions escalated. If Sarah walked in to find Emily and Sophia together, she felt that Sophia was taking Emily’s side. Unfortunately, a couple of the “shared friends” inevitably took sides or ended up melting away. Ultimately Emily and Sarah defaulted to meeting “shared friends” outside the room to minimize hurt feelings.

3. Respect

All of us have heard stories about the psycho roommate from hell who moved her boyfriend in the first week and essentially turned the room into a love palace. Or the roommate who was dirty and lacking in hygiene. Neither Emily nor Sarah committed such egregious crimes. Rather the behaviors they complained about were “being loud in the morning,” “crunching chips when I was trying to sleep,” or “ignoring my hello when I came through the door.”

The two finally had to agree to respect each other’s routines even if they didn’t mesh. And Emily and Sarah also agreed that if either was having a bad day or didn’t want to talk, instead of ignoring a greeting, they had to say, “I’m not in a mood to talk right now, thanks.” And, they deemed a civil “hello” or “bye” mandatory.

4. Clean-up

My daughter, Emily, was the guilty party here. Emily didn’t see clothes on the floor or what she characterized as random items out of place, as an issue. But Sarah did — my daughter’s clutter and messiness ratcheted up her anxiety, prompting her to want to throw anything and everything on my daughter’s bed as a message.

My daughter didn’t respond well to what she characterized as Sarah’s nagging, and Sarah didn’t want to be the maid. Sarah never felt comfortable with Emily’s piles, but they at least agreed that Emily would keep her piles on her side of the room.

And, just a note on the RA who lived next door. When Emily first reported experiencing problems, I urged her to ask the RA for guidance. While Emily initially resisted what she saw as “tattling,” the RA approached them after being tipped off the girls were not getting along. The RA suggested they make a “roommate contract,” which even the best of roommates often do to preclude conflicts in the future. Emily and Sarah never actually wrote down their new “rules of engagement” but at least were able to agree verbally on some basic tenets, which included compromises on both sides.

I’d like to say that the two patched up their friendship by the end of the year and realized they could still be friends, although not roommates. Sadly, that was not the case. Their move-out interactions were civil, if slightly strained. I’m grateful the girls were at least mature enough to survive the year, knowing they had to figure out a way to coexist with their dignity and sanity intact peacefully.

Reflecting on the year, my daughter realized that the hard-earned lessons she learned about the value of communication, mutual respect, and addressing conflict in person would serve her well in the future.

The author of this post wishes to remain anonymous.

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About Grown and Flown

Mary Dell Harrington and Lisa (Endlich) Heffernan are the co-founders of Grown and Flown the #1 site for parents of teens, college students and young adults, reaching millions of parents every month. They are writers (Lisa is a New York Times bestselling author), moms, wives and friends. They started the Grown and Flown Parents Facebook Group and are co-authors of Grown and Flown: How to Support Your Teen, Stay Close as a Family, and Raise Independent Adults (Flatiron Books) now in paperback.

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