My Child Is Leaving for College

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Time to let go … your child is going away to college.


Every August thousands of men and woman across the country experience a unique form of heartache…it’s the bittersweet act of sending a child off to college. I was inspired to write this article after having conversations with several friends who will be facing the powerful pangs of separation together with other parents as millions of freshman head off to college this fall. “Empty Nest Syndrome” is the name given to a psychological condition that can affect parents around the time that one or more of their children leave home. 


It has become a phrase for encapsulating the feelings of sadness and loss that parents experience when their child no longer lives with them or needs day to day care. The friends and clients I have spoken with want their children to have the best possible college experience and are genuinely happy for their child, but letting go is not easy and is not always appreciated when others tell you, in an effort to be encouraging and upbeat: “Think of all the time you will have for yourself now.” 


Some studies say that the move to college is even worse than the empty nest syndrome when a child grows up and moves away completely. This is largely due to the fact that Baby Boomer generation parents are ultra-invested in everything, from the first day of preschool, to weekend soccer leagues to the last day of tutoring before SAT’s. College administrators use the term “helicopter parenting” to describe a mother and/or father that hovers to the detriment of their child’s personal growth. I know this is not a term most parents appreciate because it feels like a criticism to be an involved parent. Your child needed you to watch over them when they were younger and now college administrators are saying it is time to stop and let your child navigate for her/himself. This might feel abrupt. They are right that we should avoid excessive involvement, and you know it intellectually. But emotionally how do you prepare yourself for all the feelings of loss that you experience at this time? I believe allowing yourself to feel and talk about the sense of change and loss you are experiencing is the beginning of taking care of yourself and moving forward, which is essential to personal growth. 


It’s natural to feel some sadness when a child leaves home. As an empty nester, you have the loss of normal routine caused by the absence of your loved one. When a child leaves, your everyday events and responsibilities change from being the primary caregiver to feeling a loss of purpose. More than ever, for many parents, raising children has become life’s main preoccupation. When the time comes to let your child “fly” alone, the accompanying loss of control and sense of displacement can be frightening and unsettling to parents. 


When children are young, we teach them to tie their own shoes, fix their own sandwiches and eventually how to drive a car and do their own laundry. Parents spend time teaching children so that they will be independent, productive young adults. But, amid all the day-to-day care and feeding, it can be easy to lose sight of this goal. Some parents have conflicting feelings when their kids begin to venture out on their own. A mother may feel a sense of uselessness. She may find herself searching for what to do with the extra time that was spent on chauffeuring, attending school functions, hosting slumber parties, and so on. Additionally, spouses might find they have little to talk about since their children have been the focus of conversation for so many years. 


It is quite normal to cry now and again or go into your child’s room in an attempt to feel closer to them. I have worked with clients that are successful, busy and confident men and woman who in fact admitted to feeling sad and lost. And there are parents who delight in their children leaving home, which does not make them uncaring parents. Everyone is different, we are a culturally diverse country, and for some, adapting to the North American style of acculturation of their children is often challenging, especially if you remained at home until you married. When I run groups on life transitions, I ask that everyone respect each others opinions, traditions, and point of views by sharing their feelings and through each person’s uniqueness a strong bond of understanding and support is developed. 


The one area that parents who are facing the Empty Nest’ syndrome agree on is that they want to see their child succeed and be happy. We live in a society that focuses on attainment and often loss is seen, even in today’s world, as taboo to talk about or quickly dismissed. Loss is not only about death. Throughout life we will experience many losses that we need to mourn for our emotional and physical well-being.


Your child leaving home and gaining independence is bittersweet. How can you spend eighteen years of direct caretaking and not feel a void when your child moves away? Parenting is a balancing act. You do not want to upset your child by making her/him feel guilty for “growing up,” but it is healthy to let your child know they will be missed. Walk through this transition together. The honest communication between the parent/child strengthens the relationship that will promote a continuing relationship throughout your lives. You may think your son or daughter can’t wait to get to college but keep in mind that your son or daughter is trying to take a significant step in life, without you. If your child is frightened and lonely as s/he is away from home for the first time, resist the temptation to go and rescue your child. Instead, encourage, support, and believe in him/her so that she can do it. Even from a distance your child still needs your support as s/he negotiates this new stage in his/her life. It is normal for children to experience “homesickness” and it requires a nurturing parent to tolerate the fears and to further teach your child coping skills. Parents spend years teaching their children in hopes they will grow into independent, productive young adults. It’s enormously important that you know you aren’t losing a child. Instead you just won front row seats to observe a superb performance; you’re watching your child turn into an adult. 


Once you grieve the sadness of missing the young voices and the activity of kids going in and out, it is time to take care of yourself. Find friends that are supportive, that may be going through the same life transition as you. Eat well, and get some exercise. If you are married, this is the juncture to focus on each other and renew the intimacy you once shared before children took priority. Take up a hobby, go back to school, travel. It’s a good time to reappraise your own self-esteem. Perhaps you only identify yourself as “mother” or “father” rather than as a distinct person in your own right. Your child seeing you move on with your life will help the child adjust as she/he moves on in her/his life. 


If you experience severe symptoms such as feeling your life has ended without your child at home; you are crying excessively; you feel so sad you don’t mix with friends or go to work and it has lasted more than a week, seek professional help. In this kind of situation, what seems to happen is that the child’s departure has unleashed depressed feelings that may definitely need treatment. It is not uncommon that when a woman is at this stage in life when her children are leaving she may also be going through other major changes, such as dealing with menopause or elderly parents. It can be a difficult time, and there is no shame if you need help to get through it. 


Don’t forget that your child going away to college is not goodbye forever. Just because things are different, doesn’t mean they can’t be good. The following is a wonderful analogy from Erma Bombeck, “I see children as kites. You spend a lifetime trying to get them off the ground. You run with them until you’re both breathless … they crash … you add a longer tail … finally they are airborne, but they need more string so you keep letting it out. With each twist of the ball of twine there is a sadness that goes with the joy, because the kite becomes more distant, and somehow you know it won’t be long before that beautiful creature will snap the lifeline that bound you together and soar as it was meant to soar, free and alone.” 


I applaud the “helicopter parents” for their involvement. Now, how exciting and freeing it will be when your child comes to visit and wants you to fly next to him/her with the confidence you taught her/him.

Congratulations to both the parents and children.

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