October 2017: Handling Common Student Stress Experiences: Roommate Conflicts


By: Office of Residence Life Staff

Living in a residential community provides your student with unique opportunities. Residence hall and apartment living affords the chance to meet and live with others who are different than ourselves, who share common aspirations, and have the opportunity to work together to build a community of learners. The foundation of a residence community is built from close and positive roommate relationships. Once positive roommate relations have been established, the enthusiasm and excitement can spread to the rest of the residence hall community.

While roommates do not have to be best friends in order to live together, living together in a residence hall does call for the courtesy, consideration, understanding, listening, and time that building a good friendship requires. Friends occasionally have misunderstandings, so also do roommates. Few of our new students have had the experience of building relationships of various types living in such close quarters, so this can present a challenge. You can help your student discover new ways to solve their roommate issues.

Handling roommate conflicts begins long before a conflict occurs. At the start of the living arrangement roommates should talk with one another about their backgrounds and their thoughts about JMU. They should talk about basic issues college roommates face such as, study times, friends versus privacy, drinking/smoking, neatness of the room, and sleep habits. It can help if you can give any personal reflections about these issues and how you dealt with them as a college student or at the beginning of a marriage or relationship. Here are a few starter questions to help generate discussion:

  • Study – when do you prefer to study? Do you study with background noise (i.e., music or TV)? Where do you prefer to study?
  • Sleep – How much sleep do you need each night? When do you prefer to go to bed? When do you wake up in the morning? Are you a light sleeper?
  • Guests – How many guests are okay? And where? How often? What about overnight guests?
  • Cleanliness – How important is it that the room is neat/clean? How often to sweep/vacuum? How often to do other housekeeping (i.e., take trash out, wash dishes)?
  • Items in room/food – How do you feel about roommate borrowing personal possessions (i.e., books, clothes, jewelry, laptop, game system)? How do you feel about sharing food/drinks? What items are “off-limits” for borrowing?
  • Others – What behaviors or practices are “off-limits” (i.e., coming in late and turning on lights/music/TV/etc., spitting tobacco in bottles and leaving them in the room, spraying perfume/burning incense/other odor cover ups, playing music loudly)? What are negotiable? What are your feelings about drinking/smoking/drugs? Additional moral/value related questions as needed?

It is important for your student to discuss common college roommate issues with their roommate. When roommates disagree it does not mean the roommates can no longer live with one another. It just means there are areas/items which will require some compromise and discussion should occur about how they are going to reach those compromises. Compromise does not mean that one roommate makes a decision and the other goes along with it. It is a give and take process and roommates must have an equal voice and be willing to stand up for what they believe is fair. The basic idea is to reach a middle point and realize that successful living requires sensitivity and understanding.

 When your student takes the time to get to know their roommate and come up with some basic agreements about the living space, they will be prepared when conflict occurs. The best way to handle a roommate concern is to address the conflict as soon as possible. Here is a handy way to begin a roommate negotiation to share with your student.

  • Start NOW: Your student should avoid the temptation to put off discussing things. Generally problems do not go away if ignored (i.e., if the roommate is doing something that bothers your student, and nothing is said about it, it will probably continue to happen. AND your student will not get any happier!). Waiting to talk about issues can actually cause more negative thoughts and problems to occur. Discussing what is happening in the room is not a sign of unfriendliness. It is actually a friendly gesture. It shows your student thinks the relationship is important enough to spend time and effort clearing up anything that could damage it. Something to address with your student: “If you don’t talk about it, it’s your problem only.” Accepting this helps keep relationships functioning smoothly and your student accepts the responsibility for managing their relationships with others. No one can read anyone else’s mind.
  • Prior to meeting: Have your student take time to self-reflect and prepare for a meeting. Some questions that may serve as a guide are:
    • What specifically concerns me about this situation?
    • How does this situation affect me?
    • Why is this conflict important to me?
    • What are my real needs in the situation?
    • Are my personal values being challenged? Which ones?
    • How do I view the other person? What are my assumptions and suspicions about them?
    • What do I want this person to understand about me?
    • What would make the situation better for me?
    • Set a meeting time: The sooner the better. Set up a meeting time for at least an hour so there is time to discuss what is going on. Encourage the meeting time to be at a time when both parties can focus on talking about the conflict.
    • Work cooperatively: Encourage your student to talk with and not at their roommate. They should lay out what is the root of the problem and then work together as roommates to reach a compromise. Hopefully they will listen to each other to get the maximum understanding of the situation. Encourage listening with heart, mind, eyes, and ears.
    • Create an agreement: At the conclusion of the meeting, the roommates should create a written agreement that can be used as a resource at a later date. They should clearly articulate what was decided during the meeting and post the document somewhere they both can see it daily.
    • Live the agreement!

Rooming with someone in the residence halls can be one of the best experiences of college life for your student. How both your student and their roommate approach the task of building a relationship with each other can affect the quality of their experience. The outcome of the experience depends on communication, a willingness to share feelings and concerns, and finally being willing to work through conflicts as they arise. Having a roommate can be a pleasure, a challenge, or an adventure. Encourage your student to talk to their roommate, develop a good roommate agreement, and when there are any issues to talk through them as soon as possible. If all else fails, ask your student to contact their Resident Advisor (RA) to help them mediate a solution.

Other common stressors may include: homesickness, initial adjustments to a new academic environment, values exploration, social life adjustments, initial social reflections, becoming familiar with campus, long distance relationships, feeling inadequate, and/or financial adjustments. Short articles on these and other topics can be found throughout the year at www.jmu.edu/orl/families/newsletter.shtml.

We look forward to getting to know your students and are available to help with the transition to JMU. If you have any questions about anything related to residence life, feel free to check out the rest of our website, give us a call at (540) 568-HOME, or email us at res-life@jmu.edu.

Live safe. Live close. Live supported. Live engaged. LIVE ON!

Published: Sunday, October 1, 2017

Last Updated: Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Back to Top