Letting them go: Sending your child to college

Pam J. Hecht
WNC Parent

My smart and independent girl was just taking her first steps across the room. Now, she’s leaving the house. It’s only two and a half hours to the University of North Carolina in Greensboro, but it might as well be another planet. She’s leaving the nest to start the next chapter of her life.

But rather than hurtling willy-nilly through this major family milestone, there are ways to make the transition an easier one.

Preparing them

to leave

“There’s no magic answer, but the most important part of the process is communication,” says Stephanie Franklin, director of Transition and Parent Programs at the University of North Carolina Asheville. Start by “asking your child how they should prepare and talk about your their concerns and hopes.”

Conversations should come up naturally, over time. For example, if there’s a disagreement about something at home, relate it to issues that could come up while sharing a dorm room and discuss ways to handle them. Recognize that your child may have conflicting emotions about leaving home, and may express doubts.

“Whatever you do, you have to be flexible — you can read all the books and think you know the perfect way to prepare and then emotions happen,” says Jerri Wommack, school counselor at Buncombe County Public Schools, who has two daughters, Mary Brantley, 23 and Madison, 14. “You have this wonderful outing to go together and buy sheets and comforters and then you unexpectedly see (your child’s) mood change when the future roommate doesn’t answer a text about room colors.”

Let them know what your expectations are for them while they are in college — both academically and financially, says Sue Lipiec, clinical director at UNCA’s Health and Counseling Center.

Also, send them off with basic life skills, like washing clothes, keeping track of finances and cooking, in addition to time management and task prioritizing skills, Lipiec adds.

Define mutual expectations about how the family will communicate when he or she is gone, but don’t take it personally if your child doesn’t talk to you as much as when they were living at home,” Franklin says. “Understand that they are in a different environment with new people and that takes lots of effort, so they may not have the desire or energy to say much.”

“Your child may want to come home more frequently at first, but if you feel it is too much, you might need to be busy one of those weekends,” says Wommack. “Talk about how it’s natural to feel homesick.”

“Attend the college’s orientation program with your child to get into the mindset for the transition, understand expectations of the university and find out about resources available for students there,” Franklin says. “Meet up afterwards to compare notes and fill in the gaps for each other — later, you’ll be able to remind your child about the support and resources that are there to help them help themselves.”

Explore the campus and surroundings together.

Remind your child of their successes in high school related to grades, activities and/or friends they’ve made, to boost confidence. For some, photos of friends, their signed school yearbook and other positive mementos is a source of comfort while away from home. Sending care packages and letters to your child can also help.

“Have a sense of empathy and perspective — it may take weeks for them to adjust,” Franklin says. But don’t be a “helicopter parent” — allow them to learn from their mistakes, she adds. You’re the coach, not necessarily the problem-solver.

For example, if a student is homesick or has other issues, remind them that they have a resident adviser and a college counseling center to help them and that alleviating anxiety can sometimes be as simple as going online to the college’s website to get all of the facts, Franklin says.

“Learn to trust their judgment even if you don’t agree,” says Lipiec. “Know that they will make mistakes but that’s where the best kind of learning comes from and always be open, understanding, and supportive.”

Helping the

family adjust

“Everyone in the family will be experiencing a lot of different emotions — excitement, apprehension, happiness and sadness,” says Lipiec. “Encourage younger siblings to (share) their thoughts and feelings about the changes that may be going on — it’s a period of transition for them as well.”

Celebrate the milestone together and talk of it as a natural next step instead of focusing on a family member leaving, says Wommack.

“Creating and spending quality family time together is really beneficial, but don’t be surprised if your (college-bound) child would prefer to spend their summer hanging out with their friends,” says Lipiec. Focus on the dinner table to bring the family together, she adds.

Actively involve siblings in helping to move in your new college student and allow them to explore the campus, so they can feel like they are part of the process. Also, siblings may need a little bit of extra attention as it gets closer to the time and you are focusing on getting your college-bound child ready — assure them that they, too, are important to you, and make sure their needs are being met.

Consider planning a trip or outing for after the college drop-off, says Wommack.

“After we took our oldest daughter to college, we drove through other campuses on the way home to let our younger one dream of her own college experiences,” says Wommack. “I felt it would lessen her thoughts of being (the sibling left at home) and focus on how she would be going to college one day too.

“We also went to Disney World, because we needed something to look forward to and not to dwell so much on our worries.”

Try not to make any more major changes in the household too soon, like getting a new pet.

Set up a time for your younger children to communicate with their older sibling — maybe a family Skype night, adds Lipiec.

Remember it’s OK to tell kids you miss them, but try not focus on negative feelings if as the parent, you’re having a difficult time — it may impede their success, Franklin adds.

Dealing with parent feelings

Often, it’s the parent who has trouble with the transition and needs support.

It wasn’t until dropping off her now-grown daughter at college in Pennsylvania, and saying goodbye for the first time, that “the reality of it all sank in,” says Lipiec. “The floodgates opened,” she says, and she cried until they reached their home state of Ohio.

“I had been so excited about the great opportunity and experiences that were ahead for her that I didn’t prepare myself for the sadness that was to hit me like a ton of bricks when she was gone,” Lipiec says. “I felt totally lost, and I couldn’t figure out what to do with myself and all the painful emotions and worry for her.”

She felt helpless the first few weeks, she says, because her homesick daughter would call her crying. She encouraged her to join in on campus activities to meet people and when she began to make connections and feel more at ease, Lipiec felt more comfortable, knowing she would be OK, she says.

Keep in mind that college students typically call their parents for reassurance when things aren’t going well and may leave out the positive things going on in their life.

“Happiness, pride, anxiety, sadness and a sense of loss may all be a part of your response to this time of change,” Lipiec says. “As children grow into young adults you may worry about their safety, ability to care for themselves, and capacity to make healthy choices.”

Talk to friends, especially those who have experienced what you’re going through, says Wommack. Check online or with the college for parent groups to join.