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How to Have Difficult Conversations With Your Roommate

If you're worried about your roommate, these tips can help you approach the subject and start a difficult but necessary conversation.

College is an exciting time in your life, full of newfound independence and opportunities. But whether it’s skipping class, seeking the wrong kind of attention, experimenting with drugs or alcohol, or falling in with the wrong crowd, temptations abound on college campuses. There’s also not a lot of oversight, which is both a blessing and a curse.

One of the few people you’ll see regularly is your roommate. If you notice your roommate’s behavior is suddenly concerning, it can help to sit down with him or her and talk about it. Although it may seem like none of your business, the world would be a nicer place—and the people in it might feel better and do better—if we all got into the habit of taking a stand for one another.

Learning how to act and communicate with integrity, even when it’s uncomfortable to do so, is an important tenet of adulthood. Here are some tips for knowing when and how to voice your concerns.

When to worry

It can be difficult to identify the difference between an unfortunate behavioral phase and an ongoing problem. According to Dr. Riana Chagoury, a psychologist at Prominence Hills Treatment Center, “Breaking out of denial can be tough. We don’t want to believe our friends and loved ones are struggling with addiction or other risky behavior. Even more distressing, we can feel powerless about what to do. 

“The first step in overcoming denial is educating yourself,” says Dr. Chagoury. “Seek out local support programs and services where you can learn more about the issue at hand.”

If you notice dramatic changes in behavior, poor class attendance, signs of theft, abnormal mood swings, a loss of interest in social activities, a sudden change of friends, or signs of drug use, it’s time to have a serious conversation with your roommate.  

How to approach the subject

First of all, it takes courage to initiate a difficult conversation. Be prepared with what you’re going to say and how, and deliver your concerns without judgment. Here’s a conversation outline you may find helpful:

  • Acknowledge the difficulties the other person may be experiencing. “I know you’re dealing with _____ and that it can be stressful.” Fill in the blank: a heavy course load, homesickness, adjusting to a new social circle, assuming new responsibilities.
  • Compliment them, and be genuine about it. “I admire how you _____.” Fill in the blank: keep trying, took the initiative, have aspirations, work hard.
  • State what you’ve noticed that has become a concern. “I’ve noticed that you ______.” Fill in the blank: have been missing classes, aren’t hanging out with your friends, seem depressed/distracted, have been coming home intoxicated more often.
  • Ask for their input. “Are you concerned that _____?” Fill in the blank: you’ll lose your scholarship, you won’t graduate, this is becoming a problem/habit, you could get hurt, you could get in trouble.
  • Express concern and offer support. “I’m genuinely worried because I care about you and want to see you succeed. How can I help?”
  • Direct them to a counselor, attend meetings with them, accompany them to a doctor, or just provide some accountability. The conclusion of the conversation is a good time to offer how you can assist in the next step. Listen to what they have to say, and let them know you’re there for them.

Managing the response

“People in active addiction are often unwilling to confront their problem and will respond to your concerns by discounting, denying, or becoming defensive,” says Dr. Chagoury. “Don’t take it personally, and don’t engage or argue. People in the throes of addiction often say and do things contrary to their ethics and values. It is helpful to remember they are not bad people who need to be punished, but rather sick people who are in need of treatment. Sometimes all you can do is let them know you care and are ready to help when they are ready.”

In the meantime, remember the three C’s: you didn’t create it, you can’t control it, and you can’t force the individual to change. Regardless of how your friend or roommate responds, congratulate yourself on having the courage and confidence to communicate your concerns in a way that’s nonjudgmental and offers an opportunity for growth. You can carry that wisdom with you into the start of your life as a caring and responsible adult.

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