Five fantastic tips for decorating the dreaded dorm room

How to make packing for university a fun adventure for you and your teen

So you survived the angst of college applications, the thrill of your child being accepted and, now, reality. Your child is leaving home.

When my son headed for Dalhousie University in Halifax, I felt an overwhelming mix of pride and sadness. My method to distract myself from my emotions was to make decorating the dorm room an adventure for both of us.

However, getting your teenager on board to buy home decor supplies can be difficult. So my trick was to take him to Ikea on a Saturday.

Within 25 minutes, he was begging to leave. He couldn’t take the crowds, the endless trek on yellow lines. He swore that he’d need therapy for the rest of his life if I didn’t make this torture stop.

By default, I got to pretty much take over, with “meaningful consultation.” I became so focused on the job at hand, I forgot how sad I was.

Let’s assume that the residence is a shared, typical room. It comes with a bed and mattress that is lumpy, a desk that is nasty veneer and grubby-looking floors that are ready for your precious child to arrive and make his or her own imprint for the next year or two.

First and foremost, start with the bed. Buy a decent new mattress. It will get ruined, but still, just do it. Either buy a new frame with drawers in the base, or plastic storage boxes that slide underneath, and double check the bed’s height off the ground first.

Time for sheets, duvets and pillows that are all imprinted with the subliminal message: I am all grown up now. Make sure all are virtually indestructible and buy two sets. There’s a chance they will get laundered if he or she can switch sheets right away while the others are in the wash.

Next up, a rug. It will get destroyed, so either go with a good rug that can be cleaned or a cheap one that can be thrown away. 

For laundry, your child will need a drawstring bag that can hang off a hook. A hamper takes up too much floor space. Add a typed up list of laundering instructions. He or she may read it and not put white and black in together. Worth a try!

Add some fun elements to the decor that also won’t embarrass your child. For example, get lining papers for the drawers with goofy family photos of home.

Storage is so important in these tiny dorm rooms. Add shelving anywhere you can think of. Put in hooks anywhere you can. There can not be enough storage. Kids are far more likely to use a hook or open shelf than actually take the time to open and close a drawer!

Instead of splurging on artwork for the walls, check out Umbra, which makes great little postcard or photo display options with pegs so the pictures can easily be changed. It’s a great way to make it feel like home.

To make sure he or she actually eats, a microwave or toaster oven is a necessary evil. A small fridge, depending on space, is also a great addition to a dorm room. There are compact ones that fit on a desk.

Especially during exams, your child needs to eat at odd hours of the day and night. To add that nostalgia effect, get some mugs made with pet and family photos or anything to remind him or her of home.

In these residences, students don’t usually have access to their own bathrooms. So get a travelling kit with zippered compartments to hold all of his or her personal hygiene needs. Pack multiple toothbrushes and grooming essentials as students are in a coma when they take a morning shower. Things get left behind.

Finally, find one super-amazing thing that will give your child the cool factor and also let him or her know you are on board with making this separation from you.

I bought my son a tattered vintage Canadian flag that he could put on the wall or hang on the window. It wasn’t the most original idea, but he loved it.

Last of all, pack lots of Kleenex. You’ll need it.

Hilary Farr is the tough-love designer and co-host of W Network’s Love It or List It. 

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