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The Emotional (& Logistical) Toll Of Sending A Kid To College

Written by Katie Hintz-Zambrano

Photography by Jess Brown's home, photographed by Maria Del Rio

It’s something you’ve kept in the back of your mind since your kids were babies…someday, at sometime, you’ll be sending them off to college. Once that day becomes reality, it can be a trying time for both parents and their newly independent teen. Grappling with all the logistics that come with transitioning your kid out of your home can often mask the huge emotional toll the entire process is taking on both of you. One person that knows this all too well is Karen Levin Coburn, a mother who’s gone through it herself, as well as a long-time college professional and author of Letting Go: A Parents’ Guide to Understanding the College Years (now in its sixth edition). Here, Coburn guides us through it all.

Being Emo Is Normal: “Sometimes parents second guess themselves and think, ‘This is what I was raising them for and it’s a positive thing. So, why am I feeling so bad? But it’s a natural feeling to have emotions around sending a child to college,” says Coburn. “It’s very normal and understandable. There is no relationship that even comes close to the one that you have with your child. They start out totally dependent on you and you’ve nurtured and raised them to become more independent. It’s just different from anything else.” Coburn suggests joining an online support group or talking to other parents you know who are in the same boat. Either will help you realize your emotions are totally in the norm. It’s also wise to explain to your child what you’re going through. “Talk about the ambivalence,” suggests Coburn. “Say, ‘I am so happy and excited for you, but I am also really emotional and sad.’ The one thing that’s important not to do is have the student go off really worried about the parent, which is very often the case. The transition is really big for the student and it’s a big burden to carry to also worry about how mom is doing. So, let your child know that you will miss them, but that you’re going to be alright.”

The Coldest Summer: Don’t expect your last months and weeks together to be rainbows and unicorns. Instead, brace yourself for some rocky times. “Very often, the summer before students leave, there is a lot of family tension. The children and parents are in this liminal space, where they’re really not here nor there,” says Coburn. “Both the child and parents feel ambivalence. They are looking forward to college, but they’re terrified. They’re confident, and they’re not confident.” Combative behavior isn’t out of the norm. “Some children might say things like, ‘What do you care what time I come home? Three weeks from now you’ll have no idea where I am!’ There’s a lot of push and pull and in some ways it almost makes it easier for the child to leave. Sometimes that’s what they’re dong. They’re pushing away. There’s the term ‘soling the nest’ and sometimes that really is apparent.” Realize your child is grappling with a mixed bag of emotions, as well as priorities (who will they spend their precious remaining days and hours at home with—friends or family?), which should make the bad attitudes a tad bit easier not to take personally. “Say to your child, ‘Look, I realize this is a tough time. I want you to understand that it’s a tough time for me, too,'” suggests Coburn. “As a parent, remember who is the adult. And realize it’s normal that the child is pushing away and trying to be independent. Try not to get hooked in.”

Prepare For A New Type Of Parenting: The transition to college kick-starts a new type of parenting, but not the end of parenting. “It’s helpful for parents to see how their role is changing. It’s about letting go, but that doesn’t mean cutting off. It means letting go of one type or relationship and starting another,” says Coburn. “The parent moves from day-to-day parenting to being a support, a mentor, a coach. Rather than trying to solve problems, it’s about helping their son or daughter become more resilient and more of a problem solver.” Luckily, Coburn says, nixing the day-to-day interactions with your teen can ease a lot of the tension caused by at-home bickering. “It’s hard as a parent when all you think of is loss. But most students, if you talk to them throughout their college years, they’ll say they’re closer to their parents than they ever were before. That’s the norm and the plus side.”

Handling Other Siblings: Another positive of sending one child to college is the time you’ll get to devote to any remaining kids still at home. “That child gets to shine and develop a relationship with the parent that they haven’t had before,” says Coburn. She also suggests doing what you can to make sure the child leaving the nest gets plenty of one-on-one time with their siblings, sans parents, before leaving.

Communication After College: Now that you won’t be seeing your child every day, you’ll want to create a plan about how you’ll communicate once they’re away. “It’s a good idea to have a conversation about expectations before your child leaves. Ask your child how they envision you’ll keep in touch,” says Coburn. “Would they rather you call them or the other way around? If you want to hear their voice at least once a week—instead of just texting—establish that.” If your kid suddenly goes silent once they’re away, it’s not always a bad thing. “Very often, the happier they are the less they call, because they are so caught up in what they’re doing that they forget,” explains Coburn.

Plan A Celebratory Ritual: Whether it’s a family dinner where everyone reads heartfelt notes to the departing student or a tandem trip to the tattoo parlor, plan something special and execute it before the big drop-off day. “People have this romanticized idea of the departure and all of the things they want to say to their child, but it almost never works out that way,” says Coburn, pointing out that orientations at college often separate kids and parents right away and derail any plans. “It’s not going to be this picture perfect moment, so plan to really fete your child before they go off.” The ritual can be anything, and is totally family specific.

Treat Yo Self: “When you’re getting ready to take your child to college, parents should think about what they might do for themselves after saying goodbye,” suggests Coburn. Book a trip to Europe, take the scenic route home and stay in a cute B&B, etc. Do something you can look forward to to help take the edge off. Likewise, once you get home, Coburn suggests “thinking about some things you’ve wanted to try or do, but just haven’t had the time to do.”

Parental Resources: Most colleges today have a special website just for parents, as well as on-location parent orientations. “The idea of this is for parents to understand what the resources and the processes are on the campus, so that if their child calls home and says, ‘Man, I’m failing my calculous,’ the parent knows about the tutoring center or study group options,” says Coburn. “Of course, we tell students this stuff in orientation, too, but they are so overwhelmed with all the new information, plus trying to meet new people and make an impression on people, that it’s information overload.” Find out what parental resources are available for you to put your mind at ease.

Sex, Drugs, & Money: Before your kid goes off to school, you’ll want to talk about how you’ll handle money (will the student be expected to work or will the parent provide an allowance?), as well as brief your kids on the many difficult situations that might occur surrounding drugs, alcohol, and sex (including the topic of consent) in college. “Parents may think that being honest and direct about their own values and concerns seems fruitless and redundant at times,” says Coburn, “but loath to admit it, students do care about what their parents are thinking, and often these discussions at home can serve as a grounding to refer back to when the students are faced with difficult choices at school.”

The Big Drop-Off: Depending on how far away the college is and if there’ll be a drop-off trip, Coburn suggests discussing with your child how many family members they prefer come along. Divorced parents can also complicate things, so make sure your kid has a voice in the matter. Once you’re actually on campus, don’t hold too tight to what you thought the big send-off might look like. “Parents who bring their children to college with preconceived expectations of sharing the orientation experience in a particular way miss the very rich experience actually available to them,” says Coburn. “Dreams of a last family dinner together at the best restaurant in town are often dashed by a student’s scheduled orientation event or spontaneous first meal with a new friend or floormate, and so forth.” Try to embrace the unexpected. If you have a big message you want to leave your child with, write it down and stick it in their suitcase to discover once they’ve settled in.

Be Easy On Yourself: If you’re racking your brain of all the things you should have told your kid over the last 18 years, but didn’t, try to stop. “My experience with college students is that they take their parents with them in ways that parents would probably be surprised,” says Coburn. “Parents should have some faith in themselves that their children are leaving physically, but the students incorporate what their parents have been modeling and teaching them all of these years, even though they may not acknowledge it.”

For more in-depth advise about this big transition, scoop up Letting Go: A Parents’ Guide to Understanding the College Years.

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  1. I appreciate the advice about talking to your child about how you will keep in touch and how often. My son will be leaving for college at the end of the month and I’m worried that he won’t be in touch with us when he’s gone. I’ll have to set the standard and let him know that we’re here for him and we love him.

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