I may sob, but I really don’t care!

The following is a two-part series on how families can prepare when their oldest child leaves for college.  The first is help for parents to adjust and cope.  The second focuses on helping younger siblings cope.  I hope you enjoy and share it with those who could benefit.


When I started college my parents drove me to school, helped me move in, and attended a few parent/student events. I wondered if they’d ever leave. Finally, we hugged and kissed, and they drove away. And with that I turned and sprinted across campus, beside myself with happiness, relief, and excitement. I was free and on my own.

Looking back, I realize my parents worked hard the summer before I left to prepare me for this successful transition. They also took steps to prepare themselves for my departure. After all, I was their “baby” and their nest was about to be empty.

As departure day approaches, it’s important to change the tone of your relationship with your teen, such that you become less of an authority figure and more of a guide. After all, your teen will soon be making the vast majority of decisions on his or her own. It is important for them to begin this transition before they leave. I’m not suggesting letting your teen stay out all night and having full access to the wine cellar. You still need rules and expectations. But if they make poor choices, focus more on discussion and guidance than on consequences.

As much as your college-bound teen will be pulling at the reins, seemingly full of confidence, remember that they’re also fearful and anxious about leaving home. When you sense this, reassure them that they’ll be fine and you’ll be there to help, if they need you.

So plan for regular check-ins, be it by phone, text, Facebook, Skype or email. Along with this, plan your teen’s visits home. By doing this, your teen will have the reassurance of knowing that you’ll communicate and see each other regularly.

It’s also important for parents to share some of what they’re feeling. You want your teen to know how proud you are and how much you’re going to miss him/her. Don’t overdo it. If your teen gets the feeling that their departure is going to overwhelm you, then leaving will be more difficult. Share your more intense feelings with others.

After your child leaves, you’ll have many different feelings, and most are normal and OK. Perhaps you’ll feel depressed, empty and lonely. Or you might feel happy and relieved. Be patient, the feelings will get easier and less intense. If necessary, seek out the support of friends and family to help with your transition.

You will also have more free time now that you aren’t going to games and monitoring homework, and you’ll need to figure out what to do. One option is to stay home and wallow in your feelings. Or you can find new things to do. It’s your time to explore and do what you’ve always meant to do but couldn’t find the time.

If your teen doesn’t contact you as frequently as you’d like, try not to take it personally. Your teen is in a period of extraordinary change and excitement, and staying in-touch won’t be a priority. Be patient and continue checking-in. Even if your teen seems disinterested and gives one-word responses, rest assured that your communications are helping with the adjustment.

When you do connect, celebrate what’s going well and offer to help with what isn’t. Work hard not to judge and lecture. If your teen gets the message that you are there to guide rather than criticize, they’ll be more likely to speak openly and seek your support.

When a teen leaves for college a family is thrown into a period of great challenge and transition. If parents and teens don’t work hard to make it a positive experience, relationships can be strained or even damaged. However, if parents help their teens to prepare prior to departure and support them once they’re at school, along with taking care of their own emotional needs, the likelihood of a successful transition for teens and parents is high.

Several years ago, I counseled “John,” a junior in high school. His parents brought him in because he’d left drugs on his bathroom counter and was generally dishonest. They were confused because he’d been a “perfect child” until a few weeks before.

Almost immediately, he became tearful and told me that his older brother “Dan” had just left for college. He’d been blindsided by all sorts of difficult feelings and made poor choices trying to cope. Part of what was difficult was that his parents seemed so caught up in their own feelings that they didn’t seem to notice that he was also struggling.

In fairness to his parents, John didn’t hang a banner over the front door telling them that he was struggling. Instead, the opposite seemed true. By the time Dan’s flight touched down, John had commandeered his brother’s bedroom and celebrated by having friends over for an Xbox marathon. However, underneath the bravado was a sad teen. Had his parents anticipated this, they could have done some things prior to Dan’s departure.

The effects of upcoming transition can be minimized if teens spend quality time together. Instead of encouraging this, they’d allowed Dan to work all summer and stay most nights at friends’ houses. Had they been aware of how much John would miss his brother, they could have encouraged the two of them to hang out more frequently.

Before departure day, it’s important to talk with your younger child about what changes to expect and what issues could arise. As the new “oldest child,” it’s reasonable to expect him/her to be more responsible and take over some of your college-bound teen’s responsibilities. At the same time, it’s also reasonable to increase privileges. Had this honest dialogue occurred, it’s likely that John and his parents would have begun the transition being on the same page and had an easier time adjusting.

When it’s time for your teen to head to college, it’s helpful for the entire family to “drop him/her off.” As John’s parents weren’t aware of how he was feeling, Dan’s father took him to school, while John and his mother stayed home. Had they gone together, John would have been able to see where Dan was living and tour the campus. This could have left him feeling more involved in Dan’s experience and helped them stay more connected.

Once home, recognize that your younger teen is going to have strong feelings. Be understanding of what he/she is experiencing, while reminding him/her that certain behaviors are unacceptable. When John’s parents realized this, they were more understanding about the choices he had made, while at the same time giving him appropriate consequences. Although John wasn’t happy, his behavior improved.

Furthermore, encourage your younger child to contact his/her older sibling regularly. When they did this, John reacted by getting annoyed, as he didn’t want to appear vulnerable by admitting that he missed his brother. However, when he started texting Dan frequently and keeping in-touch on Facebook, John admitted to feeling better and being more of a part of what Dan was experiencing.

Although you may face some resistance, also encourage your older teen to come home regularly. Doing so will help keep the family connected (and maybe help with some homesickness.) Although he wasn’t always happy to miss socializing with his friends, Dan came home four times during his freshman year, which seemed to help everybody.

When teens leave for college, families are forced to adjust, and difficulties are challenging to avoid. Just as you are likely to be struggling, keep in mind that your younger teen will also be having strong feelings. By remaining aware of this and taking steps, both prior to and after departure day, some of your younger teen’s struggles should be minimized.


One Response to I may sob, but I really don’t care!
  1. elizabeth
    June 20, 2015 | 8:36 pm

    Very helpful advice. Parents with teens need all the wisdom available.

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