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Letting go of your college-bound child

Though the transition can be difficult, you may be pleasantly surprised by how your relationship with your child improves after he or she begins college.

Intellectually, you know this moment is coming—the final hug before your son or daughter, a brand-new college freshman, walks away from you and disappears into a stream of fellow students.

Even so, you may not be truly prepared for the intensity of your feelings when it's finally time to let go of the child you've seen through everything from piano lessons and Little League to summer camp and prep classes for college-entrance exams.

''As much as I wanted to put on a brave face, I couldn't stop crying,'' admits Stephanie Keller, recalling her reaction to saying goodbye to her freshman son, Daniel, her oldest child.

In fact, even weeks and sometimes months after their children have settled into their dorms, many parents still find themselves unexpectedly choking back tears when something reminds them of their offspring's absence.

Keller recalls bursting into tears several weeks after her son's departure. Out of years of habit, she had asked for a table for five at a favorite restaurant—only to suddenly realize that with her son now away at college, a table for four would suffice.

Loss and maybe even a little relief

Such intense emotions are entirely normal—and often a bit one-sided, says Karen Zager, PhD, a psychologist in private practice who specializes in parenting and adolescent issues, and a member of the American Psychological Association (APA).

''Generally, the parents have a much harder time separating than the kids do,'' she says, ''though occasionally, the parents are pushing the kid out the door, and the kid is hanging on for dear life.''

Loss isn't the only emotion parents experience when adjusting to a child's absence. Often, there’s at least low-grade anxiety too. Will their child show up for classes? Learn to manage time? Make the right choices?

''Loss, concern, maybe even a little relief, if your relationship with your child was a difficult one—a lot of emotions bubble up when a child leaves for college,'' says psychologist Susan Lipkins, PhD, a member of the APA.

All these feelings can be especially powerful if this is your first college-bound child—and "you don’t have a sense of what's ahead or how to manage," Dr. Lipkins says.

Likewise, if this is your last child to leave the nest, the adjustment may be especially bumpy, since saying goodbye marks the end of active child rearing.

Even under these circumstances, however, most parents are—ultimately—happily surprised by the changes a child's departure triggers.

"Frequently, children go away and learn to appreciate their parents more. They're fending for themselves and newly aware of all that mom and dad may have done for them,'' Dr. Lipkins says.

Moreover, with each passing semester, children often return home with a new level of confidence and maturity, allowing their parents to delight in the adults they are becoming.

Put more simply: You may send off a prickly adolescent and eventually get back an emerging adult.

And as a result, "your relationship with your child generally becomes deeper," Dr. Zager says.


While you wait for all these positive changes to materialize, the tips that follow may help you feel your child's absence a little less keenly:

  • Have the right mindset. "You're not really losing your child," Dr. Lipkins emphasizes. ''The two of you are merely starting a new stage of your relationship.'' You've weathered other passages, from the first day of kindergarten to teaching your child how to drive. You'll survive this one too.
  • Redirect your energies. An absent child leaves a space in a parent's life, something you may need to deliberately fill. This is a good opportunity to reconnect with your spouse or old friends, explore a new hobby, or even read the unopened books by your bedside.
  • Parent from afar. Even if your child is several states away, email, phone calls, video chats, instant messaging and old-fashioned postal mail all make it possible to stay in touch.

Fostering independence

Remember, however, that with every communication, your goal is to support and encourage your child—not to micromanage. "If you're calling your child to make sure he's studying at night or waking up in the morning, you’re overstepping," Dr. Zager cautions.

It takes willpower to allow your child to make occasional blunders and learn from them, but blunders are inevitable. So is the occasional tearful call home, when your child seems to be overwhelmed by college life.

"Try not to let such a call overwhelm you," says Dr. Zager. Having just vented, your child will probably hang up feeling better, even if you feel worse. Generally, only if you get repeat calls—or if your child has nothing encouraging to say about his or her new life—should you contact the campus counseling center.

In short, as the parent of a new undergraduate, you usually can't go wrong by believing in your child—and, of course, sending care packages.

Reviewed 11/15/2022

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