Don’t forget to take your posters, too-River City Counseling

You & Your Teen
Helping younger teens to cope when siblings leave for college

Land Park News columnist

In my last article, I wrote to parents about how they can cope with the feelings that arise when their child leaves for college. In this article, I’m going to focus on how parents can help their younger teens cope when their siblings leave for college.

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.

In my next article in this series, I’m going focus on what parents can do to help families adjust when their teens stay at home, rather than leaving for college.

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