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How to Cope with a Child Leaving for College

Empty nest syndrome? We know it’s tough. Here are some thoughts and ideas on how to cope with a child leaving for college.

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The school year has started, and students the world over have just left for their first year of college. It’s an exciting and life-changing time for the freshman, but it can be a real life-changer for parents and siblings too! A child moving out is a sobering realization that an era has passed. It’s a strange mix of emotions, oscillating between extreme pride and intense sadness.

To avoid empty nest syndrome, parents must find ways to keep busy, figure out how to effectively communicate with their physically absent kiddos, and learn to enjoy adult time again. Kids moving out doesn’t have to be a sad occasion. It can be really exciting, but dealing with the question of how to cope with a child leaving for college does take a little planning. Here are a few tips to help with letting go and finding a new normal.

Family adventures are forever!

Whether you’re looking forward to your own space, or can’t bear the thought of an empty house, make sure to make the most of your time together while it lasts. Our Adventures from Scratch: Family Edition book is specifically designed to bring families and friends closer. Grab your kids before they leave and settle down for a rib-tickling evening of laughter and creative challenges. Family adventure categories include: Explore, Create, Learn, Spread Joy, Cook, Move, Get Silly, and more. You may find yourself on top of a mountain, tasting a new dish in your kitchen, or re-discovering your own backyard. Trust us, you won’t regret the special memories will book will help create!

Coping With a Child Leaving for College

It’s important to state here that every parent will deal with the leaving of a child differently. For some parents, it borders on catastrophic, but others might feel liberated. There is no shame, in either extreme or any range of emotion in between. You may even go on a rollercoaster of emotions, feeling differently by the day, or minute. Be patient with yourself and employ some of these helpful tips!

1. Give yourself credit and set yourself free.

You have spent the last eighteen years preparing your child for the college experience. You have given it your all, and it was hard work! While your parenting journey is certainly not over (they are going to need you when marriage, home buying, job choosing, and child-rearing come along) give yourself some credit for a job well done. Though you may have anxiety on drop-off day, the likelihood is that your child is ready. They are going to have a blast, make mistakes, recover, have heartaches and incredible triumphs, and they will likely include you in all of it. Pat yourself on the back a little. Getting a child through high school and into university is a big achievement!

2. Accept your new role.

According to Vicki Nelson, founder of College Parent Central, parents often misunderstand their new role. They look at the situation as if they are letting go and stepping out of the picture, but that is far from the truth. She states that the situation is better looked at as a role shift. Parents are converting from their role as caretakers to something that is more akin to life coaches. This transition can be a beautiful one… and a liberating one! You still get to be your child’s primary source of comfort and wisdom, but you don’t have to wash their underwear anymore.

3. Set appropriate expectations.

One of the most hurtful things for parents is when their child is away from home for the first time, and they seem to be doing just fine without you. Some college freshmen will never experience homesickness, and they seem to thrive on their own. That’s great news! That means you prepared them for life as an adult, and they are confidently taking on the world. Celebrate that.

If you are expecting your child to call daily, cry about missing home, and want to come back, you might be setting yourself up for extreme disappointment. Set your expectations lower, and express them to your child. If everyone is on the same page, you can evade a lot of hurt feelings. Remember, you are not letting go of your kid. They will still need you for a great many things. Your role is just shifting, and that takes some changing of expectations.

4. Set up a convenient communication scheme.

Some college kids are not going to take the time to call home as much as you might like. That doesn’t mean they aren’t thinking of you, but that first year of college life is full of new experiences and the stress of learning to do life as an adult. Some children will call mom for every decision, but some are hell-bent on making this life thing happen on their own. Either way, it is important to have an established form of communication that works for all of you. Mary Dell Harrington founded the website Grown & Flown, and she recommends setting up a routine. Your schedule might need to change from week to week, but it’s important to plan your communication.

Perhaps you agree to have a video chat or phone call once a week. You could set up a family text thread or a Marco Polo thread to send short videos to each other. This works well as it allows you to see each other without taking lots of time out of the student’s busy day. If you have always shared crazy cat videos or dad meme jokes, then continue to do so. Thanks to our digital world, communication with your college kid is easier than ever.

5. Planning prevents anxiety.

Some parents truly struggle with the fear and anxiety of sending their children out into the world. What if they have unsavory roommates? What if something happens to their health? Did you prepare them appropriately to live on their own? All these what-ifs can flood a concerned parent and overwhelm you if you’re not prepared.

The best way to stave off anxiety is to do as much planning as possible before college. Set up your child with a local doctor. Take a tour of the city so that they know where the hospital, police station, and best public transit options are. Make sure they have their insurance cards and understand how to use them. Have those difficult conversations about personal safety and give them some basic self-protection tactics. While your child is still in high school, prepare them on financial spending habits and how to manage their money. Having these little conversations will make your college student feel more prepared to take on their first year, and it will ease anxiety on your end.

6. Utilize the time you have!

You are all imparting a new life, but that doesn’t mean you have to sacrifice family time! Schedule family weekends for your student to come home, or for you to go visit them, and make them fun. Adventures From Scratch: Family Edition is full of exciting adventures that are created by relationship experts to not only craft a fun environment but one that focuses on maintaining healthy family dynamics. Our adventure books are filled with scratch-off activities that are a blast for everyone involved. Snag a book. Schedule your weekends, and stick to them!

If your student hasn’t left for college yet, then take some time to get away together before they move out. A special trip with your kiddo, before they go to university, is the perfect time to set expectations, have those difficult conversations, and prepare for the big changes that await you both.

For a few ideas on how to connect, check out our advice in “A Parent’s Guide to Connecting With Kids of Any Age.” The last section is all about connecting with young adult children and has some excellent ideas for this stage of your relationship!

7. Stick to your traditions.

Family traditions are an important part of maintaining ties. Whatever you have normally done for the holidays, birthdays, summer vacation, etc, stick to it! Not only do these traditions help you, as a parent, find solace in sameness, but they also provide stability for your college kid. Young adults may skulk at having to endure family holidays, but in reality, it is just as important to their identity and sense of family unity as it is to yours. They just might not know it yet.

8. Give them space… but not too much.

Some students will come home every weekend and long to spend time with family, at least for a while. You may even find that you have to encourage them to get out there and experience life for themselves. Others will not be so willing to miss out on weekend activities at school to come home and hang with their mom.

Whichever kind of student you have, they must know that home is always available. Though it requires you to be a bit vulnerable, make sure your student knows that your home is their safe place and that you will always be there. John Mayer (Ph.D. author of Family Fit: Find Your Balance in Life, not the pop singer) states that is perfectly okay to let your child know that you have mixed emotions about them leaving. Just try to keep it positive. Let them know that you will miss them, and that you are nervous, but also that you are excited for them and proud of them. You don’t want to induce guilt, but you don’t want them to think that you are ambivalent about the difficulty of the situation either.

This might be the hardest part of your role as a college parent. It’s a tight line to walk between giving them space to make their own decisions and also making sure they know that you are their biggest supporter and that you will always have their back. Don’t enforce your will on them, but always reassure them that you are listening any time they want advice.

9. Find other empty nesters.

Feeling sadness, anxiety, loneliness, and a range of other emotions is normal for family members when a child heads off for college. These are feelings that most parents are enduring. It’s best to go through them with others! Joining a social media group for new college parents can give you an outlet to express your feelings and get help dealing.

Grown & Flown and Collegiate Parent both have Facebook groups where they post helpful articles, answer questions from parents, and give advice on how to help your first-year student thrive.

10. Utilize your newfound free time.

Remember back… way back. You did once have a life that didn’t revolve around picking up after kiddos. Remember that? Yeah… that was fun. It’s time to get it back! You have control over how you use your time. For the sake of your mental health, keep busy, and fill your lull time with adventures that you weren’t able to do when your house was full of kiddos. Visit that winery! Go to the spa. Take some friends on a girl’s getaway, or join the boys for a bar crawl. Start that new hobby you have been putting off for years. This is a chance to create new healthy habits for yourself that don’t revolve around kiddos!

11. Work on your other relationships.

Parenting is an all-consuming job. Most of your time and activities revolve around the kids, and even conversation with your partner is likely dominated by what is going on with your children. Now is the time to restructure your relationship with your partner. Many people feel a bit lost in their relationship when the kids move out. For most couples, it takes some hard work and adjustment to find a new normal, but with a little strategic adventure, you may find that you are right back to the butterfly stages of your romance in no time.

We have you covered here! Adventures From Scratch: Date Edition is our handbook for romantic adventures. Our relationship experts have created over 55 adventure dates, complete with conversation starters, “why I love you notes,” and clever questionnaires focused on getting to know your partner better. Our adventures are customizable to any age, budget, or comfort level. Go out on a limb here and try something new. This is a season of changes. Make them amazing ones!

12. Consider it a learning experience.

The truth about parenting is that you have let go a little multiple times during your child’s development. You let go a little when they started walking, and a little more when they went to kindergarten. The leash grew longer when they went to their first slumber party, and then longer when they went out on their first date. While this change may seem huge, it is just another developmental stage for you and your child. They will learn a lot about life in the next few years, and so will you.

13. Show your support.

One way to stay involved during your child’s college experience is to get into the university spirit. Hook your child and yourselves up with some official university merchandise. Most students will enjoy sporting events of some kind during their college experience. Plan to attend a few games or watch them on TV and look for your kiddo in the stands. If your child is playing a sport or participating in the band or cheer squad. Be there when you can. It keeps the connection strong and lets them know that their parents are still their greatest supporters!

14. Remember they are coping too.

While it is easy to focus on your sadness, remember that this is a big change for your child too. Many students will feel lonely that first year. Many will not. Many will feel homesick. Some will not. Some will excel in school, and others will struggle with time management and financial responsibilities. Be prepared to offer advice and small acts of help, while refraining from stepping in and fixing the situation.

If you find that your child is having a tough go of it. Plan a weekend together to get them away from the stress. Send a care package with all their favorite food items and a gift card for a massage or yoga session, or plan a visit and take them to a nice dinner.

15. Take care of yourself!

Parents tend to let themselves go a bit in exchange for ensuring that their children have everything they need. Exercise gets put on the back burner. You haven’t had new jeans in years, and your hair and makeup could certainly use a makeover. This is the time!

Take some of your newfound minutes and a few dollars and spend them on yourself. We’re not just talking about new wardrobes and hairdos either. It’s no secret that mental and physical health are intricately linked. While you might just want to sit on the couch and chow down on Doritos, one of the best ways to deal with your empty nest sadness is to produce some endorphins! Join that spin class. Go on a yoga retreat, or take up jogging. It’s time to shift the focus back to you for a bit.

16. Don’t expect your partner to feel the same.

As stated in the opening paragraph, every parent deals with this new season differently. Just because your partner is not grieving, in the same manner, as you are, doesn’t mean they aren’t having their hurricane of emotions. Then again, maybe they aren’t, and that is okay too.

As discussed, an empty nest is a time to focus on the positives of your romantic relationship and work to help each other through the changes. Make sure not to take your negative feelings out on your partner, especially if they are not feeling the same as you. If they seem to be coping impeccably well, then lean into their strength. It is likely one of the features you fell in love with in the first place.

17. It’s okay to grieve.

Be gentle with yourself. You’re grieving in a sense. It’s not silly. It’s not unwarranted. It is normal. Give yourself time to adjust. It’s okay to pull out the photos and remember their first steps, first home run, or when they went to their first dance. Heck, maybe get a glue stick and finish their baby books that you started and never completed. Sometimes little acts like this can help bring some closure and get you in a mood to create. You may find that you move from scrapbooks to completing that DIY project you haven’t had time for until now!

The point is, grief is okay, and probably inevitable. You can keep busy, work on other relationships, take adventures, and take care of yourself, and you still may have sad moments over the growing up of your baby. Take time to feel them, then get up and paint something.

Take a breath. You got this!

Sending a child off to college is difficult, no doubt about it, but with a little pre-planning, you can both thrive in this new situation. Give yourself and your child some grace. Be patient, and focus on the positives! You and your child are going to be fine, and you are entering a new season in your life where you will likely find that your grown kiddo becomes your very best friend. The years ahead are awesome ones, so choose healthy habits to cope with your child leaving and focus on personal growth and strengthening your other relationships. This is just a season, and the mix of emotions will pass!

Have you recently sent a child off to college? Let us know your strategies for coping in the comments!

If you still have teenagers in your home, check out our guide “How to Parent Teens Without Conflict and Drama.” It’s filled with fabulous tips for navigating the hormonal years with grace and wisdom.

Frequently Asked Questions

Is it normal to cry when your child goes to college?

Oh goodness, yes! Parents experience a whole range of emotions when their child leaves for college, ranging from sadness to intense pride. Employ a few strategic steps to help yourself cope.

What do you say when your child is leaving for college?

A child leaving for college produces mixed emotions that are hard to verbalize. Tell them you will miss them, but focus on the positive. It’s a whole new chapter of life, for both of you.

How do you cope with a child leaving for college?

This season is the perfect time to focus on your own health and deepen your other relationships. Take some time to adventure with your spouse, spend time with friends, or start a new exercise routine.

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