How to deal when a child heads off to college: A parent's survival guide

Some parents choose denial as a way to deal with their child's departure for college, but there are better ways to manage this transition.


For weeks, I stood in the grocery store and sobbed. Casually, I would wipe away the tears, as if crying in a supermarket were the most natural thing in the world.

My eldest child had left for college and in almost every aisle of the store, there was yet another reminder of this with something else I didn’t need to buy.

Parents who deal best with this change have planned ahead.Getty Images

I had dreaded his departure for 18 years and although I hoped it might not be as bad as I feared, it was worse. I cried in my car and in the shower and, even with two kids home, his absence left a gaping hole. When his younger brothers left in the ensuing years, I fared no better.

The pain I felt with each of my kids’ departures was partly from missing their joyous presence. But on a deeper level, I was forced to confront that no matter how much we stayed in touch, as their lives diverged from mine I would know them that little bit less. Every year, we would share fewer experiences.

I chose the worst possible coping strategy to deal with my sons’ imminent departure: denial. But there are far better ways to manage this life-changing transition:

1. Plan for your freshman’s departure

Melissa T. Schultz, author of the forthcoming book “From Mom to Me Again: How I Survived My First Empty Nest Year and Reinvented the Rest of My Life,”describes the off-to-college transition as going from “being constantly on call to not being called.”

Schultz found the parents who dealt best with this change had planned ahead. She urges parents to shift some of their focus back towards themselves and find non-parent ways to enjoy spending their time while their kids are still in high school.

“When the kids leave, a lot of that glorious energy they bring to our lives goes with them. We need to figure out how to fill our lives with our own energy,” Schultz explains.

The mothers who move on most quickly from their initial sadness are those who have actively prepared themselves for their kids’ departure, Carin Rubinstein, professor of psychology at Pima College, learned when she surveyed a thousand empty nest mothers.

These women had ramped up their working hours, gone back to work part-time or immersed themselves in new interests so that even during the first week after their freshman left home, they were prepared.

2. For most parents the sadness will soon pass

Rubenstein found most mothers had a bout of real grief after they dropped their kids at college. Yet nine out of ten moved on from this feeling within a month or two, and many much sooner.

As parents realized they had their own life back, grief was soon replaced by relief and later turned to joy. Parents typically took between six to nine months to move through these stages. A quarter of the mothers she surveyed went right to the joy stage soon after college drop off.

“Moms don’t like to admit this, but in essence their life can be much better when their kids leave. We have many years of life left afterwards and we can enjoy those years,” Rubenstein explains.

3. Be gentle with yourself and acknowledge the big changes in your life

We are not just saying goodbye to our child, but to a way of life, governed for decades by the school year. There is no more standing by the sideline with parents we have known forever or sitting in the audience watching school performances.

Relationships, even ones once thought to be real friendships, may be gone. We may feel the loss of our role as our teen’s day-to-day parent and of our own identities, rooted for so long in parenthood.

The pain of our kids leaving for college is an emotional cocktail of worry and sadness. Part of it is concern for how our kids will acclimatize to their new setting. Many parents find the transition much easier once they know their kids are settled.

4. Focus on your family, marriage and other relationships

Schultz found the biggest fear of every woman she interviewed was how her relationship or marriage would adapt once the kids left for college. Women were concerned that after decades of being together, all they had in common with their partner was their children.

Sara Gorchoff, assistant professor of psychology at Monmouth College, examined the the marriages of empty nesters and “our research found that of the women we studied, on average, their marital satisfaction got better once their kids left. We specifically found that these women were spending a similar amount of time with their partners, as they had when their kids were in the home, but they enjoyed that time more.”

“There are many studies that show with the arrival of kids, marital satisfaction decreases,” Gorchoff notes in explaining the change. “Caring for kids is stressful and tiring and you associate your partner with the things you are doing. Having kids leave is an opportunity to re-associate your partner with fun, excitement and relaxation”

Parents aren't the only ones feeling the loss. Siblings may feel they've lost their life long companion. Family rituals can slip and familiar patterns change, leaving younger siblings adrift.

Once my older sons left for college, I all but abandoned grocery shopping until my youngest reminded me that even with his brothers gone, he still liked to eat.

Parents can help younger brothers and sisters adapt by encouraging siblings to stay in touch without parental involvement, bringing them to Family Weekend or finding ways to mark family celebrations together.

By video chatting, my younger sons we able to see their brother's dorm room, meet his roommates, haul our dog into the picture and be reminded they were still very much a part of each other’s lives.

5. Find new ways to communicate

Generations went off to college with nothing more than a quick weekly phone call because long distance calls were so expensive. Times have changed. Parents might want to explicitly discuss what method of communication works best for every family member.

Some families keep in touch electronically with text groups or Group Me, creating a virtual dinner table where the family dynamics can continue. Others set up regular video chats.

In an informal survey of college freshmen, Gorchoff found students were very happy with such regularly scheduled communications. Most students wanted to stay in fairly close contact with their parents, but “they just want to avoid frequent and unpredictable interruptions.”

Schultz recalls that when she was working late in her home office, her sons would see the light on and drop by to chat. After they left for college, the pattern continued. “In the wee hours, I would often send a little text with humor or a question that I hoped wouldn’t be intrusive. I let them know that the light was on. And it worked and continues to be how we connect.”

The journey to the empty nest takes many years. It starts when our eldest get their drivers’ licenses and ends when our youngest has a place of his own. During this lengthy process, we are reshaping our families. We should give this transition the same care and thought we do to every other major change, knowing it will be filled in some measure with pride, discomfort, sadness and joy.