by Marianne M. O’Hare, PhD,
New Jersey Licensed Psychologist

When a parent sends their child off to college for the first time, it is a transition, not only for the child, but for the parent. Whether this is your first, middle, last, or only, sending this young person to college is not the same as “going back to school.” Going to college is considered to be a rite of passage and a time of separation for both parent and child.

Separation is not always easy. It is very common, during a transition, to experience very mixed emotions. There will be times when you will feel happy and rejoice at the quietness of the house and your free time. There will also be times when the quietness becomes overwhelming. You will be delighted to become reacquainted with your spouse and, then, sad because you used to do “everything as a family.” You will feel confident that your child will adjust and do very well. Then, you will feel anxious and fearful that you might not have prepared him/her well enough for college life.

Through all these mixed up, normal emotions, you now have the opportunity to discover yourself as a different person, which is exactly what your child is in the process of doing.

It’s very important to realize that, during this time, both parent and child have the opportunity to grow, change, and develop in terms of your own identities. Children become adults and parents develop a new role in their child’s life. You and your child can develop a new adult-to-adult relationship.

In order to foster an adult relationship with your offspring, here are some, hopefully, helpful suggestions for parents:

  • Recognize that whatever you are feeling about his/her departure is normal. But to be overly emotional may cause your child to worry about you and make separation more difficult.
  • Keep company with supportive, caring friends, especially those who have been there and know what you’re going through.
  • Stay healthy and happy by eating, drinking, sleeping and socializing to a “normal” degree. Time you used to spend parenting can be spent developing or pursuing other interests, activities, a hobby, or a career.
  • Avoid feeling left out or ignored. These feelings will lead to over involvement and intrusion into your young adult’s life. There are some things that you should not know.
  • Consider and understand the feelings of your children still at home. They have also said goodbye.
  • Trust your offspring to make sound judgments by themselves. In order for your young adult to develop and mature, s/he must make his/her own decisions. This suggests that you need to resign your control. This means that you can listen, guide, but not pressure. This also means that you do not contact authorities, deans, and departments without your offspring’s knowledge.
  • Try not to overreact, even in a crisis. If you are supportive of your young adult’s ability to cope and problem solve, your offspring will develop greater confidence in him/her self and his/her abilities. Unless it is a life threatening situation, time and the student’s efforts may bring resolution.
  • Remember that it’s your thoughts that count. Catastrophizing, awfulizing, and tunnel vision will do you in and will not help resolve a problem. Very often, situations and problems remedy themselves in a matter of hours or days. No matter what the problem, keep in mind that there is a solution or goal. Sometimes all your offspring needs is a listening and empathic ear.
  • Stay in contact and connected, and plan ahead. Arrange a time for your offspring to call, or you to call them. If you want time with your offspring for a special dinner, celebration, or holiday, make your desires known and plan it ahead of time. Use e-mail. Send care packages. In order to separate, your young adult needs to know you’re there.

So, here you are, doing the best you can. Expect that this time will be like a roller-coaster ride. You and your young adult are going to have your ups and downs. But, think of the satisfaction you will have at the end of the ride. In the words of Arnold Lobel, “All’s well that ends with a good meal.”   In my words, “A good night’s sleep and things will be different in the morning.” And, most importantly, keep in mind my inexact quote of Alfred Adler, “If you want something for your child, more than the child wants it for him (her) self, if it is not attained, you, not your child, will feel sad, frustrated, and discouraged.” I wish you a calm, quiet, and fulfilling experience.