Your Student Is in College: A Parent's Guide to Letting Go

Letting go can be hard for some parents. Here's some advice from a college insider if you're coping with sending a student to college for the first time.

Just like students, parents have different attitudes toward the transition to college—from anxiety to excitement and everything in between. There’s the stereotypical helicopter parent who can’t let go and does just about everything but move into their child’s dorm room, but for most parents, the experience of their student going off to college is more complicated and nuanced. As a parent who’s happily lived through the letting-go process (twice) and as an admission professional who’s seen it done both well and badly, I hope to share some tips and compassion for what parents might be going through as they face the inevitability of their child heading off to college.

What if they can’t do things on their own?

I remember this feeling well: the sickening realization that my child was about to leave home with no idea how to sort laundry, operate a washer or dryer, avoid shrunken sweaters, or anything else for that matter. Maybe your “a-ha!” moment is realizing your child doesn’t know how to fill a gas tank or iron a shirt. Whatever the task, most parents go through this train of thought: “My student doesn’t know how to do this. Why don’t they know how to do it? It’s my fault they don’t know how.” You experience the double parenting whammy of guilt and panic. You realize there’s so much to teach them you never thought to before and only a few short months (or weeks) to do so.

First of all: breathe. Then, think back to your own hapless adulting experiences. Maybe you ruined a few items of clothing yourself with washing or drying mistakes, or maybe you locked yourself out of your dorm room or apartment. The point is: Your teen will make mistakes. And guess what? They‘ll learn from them. (Probably more effectively than hearing advice from you!) By all means, teach them how to do laundry, but realize you can’t prepare them for every possible situation they’ll experience in college.

Related: How to Help Your Student Through College Admission Season

The empty nest syndrome

Aside from the helicopter parent trope, the empty nest metaphor is unavoidable. If you’re watching your oldest go off to college and you still have one or more students at home, this won’t apply to you—yet. But eventually when you share the exciting news of your student’s acceptance to a great college, the response will often be, “Congratulations! How are you feeling about your empty nest?” First of all, your nest is not empty. It’s likely your teen’s room still contains plenty of stuff, from lonely single socks to dusty soccer trophies to dirty dishes. But as a metaphor, the empty nest does express your chick becoming a fledgling testing its wings—or your teen transitioning into adulthood. It’s natural to hold your breath as you watch this sometimes shaky first flight, but it’s also natural to experience joy and hope as you witness this launch. There’s greater physical space that now separates you from your teen, yes, but that can be a good thing. My spouse and I made a list of shared goals—activities like weekend hikes or monthly trips out of town—that we could really look forward to doing once our kids were out of the house. Having a plan while your student is gone can help relieve vague worries, so make a list of activities or hobbies you’ve been wanting to explore with a partner or friend. And go ahead and shut their bedroom door—you don’t really have to tidy it up until they come home again.

Falling into the worry trap

Your student’s transition to living independently can present some challenges. When they call you in tears with a problem, it can be difficult not to call a college dean, professor, RA, or other adult to get some assistance for your suffering child. Keep in mind that just about every parent has been in this situation. Speaking from experience, my advice is to listen but don’t jump in to solve the problem. My oldest child forgot to send in a permission form for her orientation trip and called me in a panic just as I was opening my office door. I had a few suggestions for her but not one of them was “I’ll drop everything and take care of it!” Help your student think strategically so they can find accessible resources at their college, whether it’s peer tutoring, a dean or academic advisor, or financial aid staff. After hanging up, your student will likely feel better after unloading on you, but you may be left worrying about their problems. Wait a few days and check back with them. Monitor any troubling behaviors, of course, and feel welcome to partner with college staff at the Student Affairs Office if you have serious concerns, but many problems are opportunities for your child to develop coping and troubleshooting skills. 

Related: 4 Ways to Help Your High School Senior Prepare for College

Should I feel this happy about saying goodbye?

On the other hand, some parents experience relief when their children go to college. Maybe their relationships had become fraught. Maybe conflicts over behaviors, homework, or even substance abuse had taken their toll. I came up with my own theory that the summer before a student leaves home for college, they become more and more annoying until you’re delighted to see them go. And I think there’s something to that. Your teen is probably anxious too, and often, you’re the target for their angsty feelings. Sometimes a break can give both parties breathing room and time to reflect on how to move forward to a healthier teen-parent relationship. As time goes by, remind yourself that this was the goal all along: to raise a child who can be independent. When they come back home, they’re bound to revert to some of their earlier behavior, but on their own turf, they can more fully be the young adults they’re becoming. If you visit them on campus, let them show you around and educate you about their college and life on campus. You’ll help build their confidence and adulting muscles by acknowledging that they’re the experts on their college experience.

Related: Important Lessons You Learn in College to Take to the Real World

It’s natural to feel mixed emotions as your student goes off to college, and there may be some bumps in the transition process. But take a look at the long term! In four(ish) years, you’ll probably be wiping a tear from your eye as you watch them flip the tassel on their graduation cap again. Enjoy the process of letting go and building a relationship that moves beyond dependence to mutual appreciation. With any luck, you’ll even have some embarrassing stories for the future. “Remember that one time when you called me in tears because your white shirt turned pink?”

For more advice on navigating the college process with your student, check out our Parents section. 

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