For Parents: Coping With Big Emotions When Your Child Leaves for College
Updated: Sep 15
There may be parents who are calm and unruffled when their child leaves for their first year of college, but for many or even most parents, it’s a bittersweet, challenging, and emotionally intense time. If you are one of those parents feeling all the feels as you send your baby off to college, this article is for you.
I like this distinction William Bridges makes between change and transition (in the book, Transition: Making Sense of Life's Changes): change is the physical rearrangement that makes life different than it was before: the moves, new jobs, babies born. Transition goes deeper. It’s the “inner reorientation of self, a redefinition you have to go through to incorporate those changes into your life.” Your child leaves for college: that is the rearrangement, the change. They are no longer asleep under your roof, and they’re not at the dinner table on an ordinary weeknight. The change is obvious.
But the transition? That can be hidden in the busy-ness and logistics of the change. Sure, you have been building up to this with sleep away camps and summer trips with friends; preparing with talks of the future, college visits, and trips to Target for bedding and shower caddies. And still, the transition can be unsettling and disorienting, and even overwhelming.
Bridges identifies three parts to a transition: 1) the ending 2) the neutral zone and 3) the new beginning. In this ‘sending your child off to college’ transition, these stages can be a little muddied for you and your child. But from a parent perspective, the “ending” looks like this: you bring them to their dorm, and you go home without them. And then there you are in the “neutral zone”, what Bridges calls “the confusing nowhere of in-betweenness”, a space where you grapple with emotions and orient to this new experience.
Every parent will move through this natural process of transition in their own way. How it goes for you will depend on many things: if you have other kids at home, your personal style of handling change, your personality, your other interests, your support system, other co-occurring transitions or challenges, how you view your parent role, the list is endless.
There is no one-size-fits-all way through this transition. I offer the points below for you to consider as buffet style advice, see what feels helpful and fill up on what you need:
Feel your feelings: This can be a challenge if you’re used to setting your own emotions aside, or if you fear that opening the door to those difficult emotions will lead to an emotion tsunami. But here’s the truth that you probably already know: feelings don’t go away when you push them down. When you pause and name what you are feeling it can surprisingly help you move through them- something as simple as “I feel sad right now, missing him” out loud or in your head. If you want something a little more, try RAIN, a mindfulness of emotions practice. Here’s a nice explanation of RAIN: https://melliobrien.com/r-n-four-step-process-using-mindfulness-difficult-times/ Also, if you search “RAIN mindfulness” you can find many lovely visuals to print out as a reminder!
Acknowledge your grief: Yes, what you are feeling can be called grief and I know that may seem out of line with this “exactly what you hoped for” event. How can you be happy and proud AND at the same time, feel this experience as a loss? Well, you can because it is a loss- loss of the physical presence of your child, loss of a certain parenting role, loss of certain rituals or rythmns. (And of course, in case you need to be reminded, it’s normal to experience two seeminly opposite feelings at the same time.) Grief researchers call this ambiguous loss, here’s a definition from the Mayo Clinic, “A person's profound sense of loss and sadness that is not associated with death of a loved one. It can be a loss of emotional connection when a person's physical presence remains, or when that emotional connection remains but a physical connection is lost.” Every approach or strategy mentioned in this article can be helpful for coping with ambiguous loss, including naming the emotion as grief. I also like the idea of rituals for ambiguous losses; a letter to your child about the experience of being their parent (that you maybe don’t even send), a letting go ceremony (just for you or you and closest peeps), or whatever feels right for you.
Give your ‘away-at-college’ child space to feel their feelings too. It’s nice when they call with happy news and an upbeat mood. It can be tough when they call with the long distance upset. In the same way that naming emotions helps calm your intense feelings, when you validate how they feel, you can do the same for them. “Sounds like a tough week, that’s disappointing” and “I hear you’re sad, you miss Fluffy.” It can also help to remind yourself that struggles, especially in times of transition, are ‘normal’. In his book, Emptying the Nest: Launching Your Young Adult Toward Success and Self-Reliance, Dr. Brad Sachs offers this wisdom, “No amount of education, care or effort is going to inoculate you or your young adult against disappointment and disillusionment, challenge and complexity.”
Consider the balance of ‘being there for them’ vs ‘allowing them space to figure things out for themselves a bit’: Psychologist Lisa Damour, author of Untangled and Under Pressure, offers this advice, “ You want to be a source of support. No question. But we do want to not be so available and so ready to have a conversation about anything at any time that they don’t start to use their roommates, or they don’t start to go check in with the professor. So that’s the gray area I’d want parents to watch for so that it doesn’t start to tip too far into constant communication around whatever the most upsetting thing is that just happened.” Ask Lisa podcast episode How Often Should I Be in Touch with My College Freshman?
Take care of yourself: When you’re off-kilter during a transition, it’s easy to drop the self-care and healthy-ish routines that keep you feeling well and steady. Not only is this tough on you, but you are not as helpful to your college kid if you’re worn out. The put-on-your-oxygen-mask-first analogy is used so much because it is deeply true. If you need help sticking with your best self-care habits, ask a friend to be an accountability partner, write your self-care into your calendar, make habits easier with reminders or explore other habit maintaining hacks. Reminder: you define what self-care means to you- maybe it includes bubble baths and spa days, but maybe it is simply remembering to take your morning walk, or dropping some non-essential to-dos this month. I like this list from the Tiny Buddha blog, because it includes big and small self-care ideas, and some of them are ones you may not think of as self-care, https://tinybuddha.com/blog/45-simple-self-care-practices-for-a-healthy-mind-body-and-soul/ And, here is an article I wrote a few years ago about self-care for parents of big kids: https://grownandflown.com/moms-of-teens-need-self-care/
Give yourself some compassion. I am guessing that you’re comfortable offering encouragement and support to your child, but how are you with turning compassion inward, and being kind to yourself? Self-compassion might look like softer, kinder self-talk, similar to ways you might speak to a friend, “I know, this is hard right now, what would help?” This simple shift can be a powerful source of coping and resilience. Researcher Kristin Neff offers specific self-compassion exercise on her website, selfcompassion.org.
Go ahead and worry, but not too much. Worry can take you spinning into the future, with ‘what ifs” for your child, who is now out on their own in this big uncertain world. Add in worries about your own next steps, “how will I ever get used to this?”, and you have a recipe for anxiety and distress. A simple strategy that can help is to schedule some “worry time” each day. It may seem silly, but setting aside time (20 minutes?) each day to focus on your worries can be a first step to keeping the worries from ruining your days. When worry shows up, “hey worry, I see you and thanks for the alert, we have that worry time at 8 pm, so I’ll be sure to see you then.’
Keep the flashlight of your attention on what you can control. Generally, the more you focus on things outside of your control, the more likely you are to feel anxiety and emotional upset. When you focus on what you can control and can do, it often leads to feeling calmer and more empowered. If your child is sad because they didn’t make the college club soccer team, you can’t get them on the team or make them happy about the rejection, but you CAN send a nice care package. Here is a nice Circle of Control Visual. That might help you ‘see’ this more clearly.
Be careful of the leap to “fix-it” mode. When your college kid calls to vent or process feelings, try this: pause, take a few deep breaths, and ask them, “what would be helpful tonight? Do you want suggestions or just want me to listen?” If they ask for suggestions, try to offer them up as true suggestions (not directives), “What sometimes helps me when I’m sad is _____” or “I wonder if it might help to _____”
Be ready with suggestions If they ask for them: Consider thinking ahead and having a few “college adjustment’ ideas on hand, from your own experience, the experience of others, or even ‘experts’ with advice that resonates. Harlan Cohen, author of The Naked Roommate, has this framework for adapting to college transition: People, Places & Patience (who are your people at college, where are your places on campus, and give it time). Here’s a short video where he is talking to Psychologist Lisa Damour about a college mental health transition plan Harlan Cohen's College Mental Health Transition Plan
Find new tools (or dust off old ones) to help you regulate your nervous system: Transitions can shake up your internal sense of safety and trigger the fight or flight nervous system response. Instead of being chased by a lion, you’re missing or worrying about your beloved family member. Fill your coping & regulating toolbox with activities and exercises that get you back to equilibrium. There are many strategies or “tools” you can use to regulate, and different things work for different people. The goal is not (or not always) to be super calm, but to be less jangled so you can feel better and function better. Here is one article with a simple nervous system explanation and some calming strategies 6 Ways to Calm Down Get curious about what works for you!
Find ways to self sooth and distract. Some of the nervous system regulating strategies might overlap with this but self-soothing and distraction are often a bit different, more about fun and pampering than just calming the threat alarm. Can you be intentional to add in some stuff that make you feel better while you adjust in this transition time? I like this article 100 Ways to Self Soothe because it offers so many to choose from- what is soothing for you?
What do you want? Maybe you aren’t looking for any more changes in your life, or you still have a few kids at home keeping you busy. But for some, this ‘sending your child off to college’ can be a time for reflection, a shift from what does my family need to “what do I want?” (in big and small ways). There are many ways to explore this question, with the support of a therapist or coach or self-help books. Consider a starting place to ask yourself questions like: What do I look forward to most each day? When was the last time I felt a rush of satisfaction or excitement? What makes me happiest?
Get the support you need and that feels supportive: Turn to the people who who are willing and able to show up in this transition time however you need them. If your sister is not a good listener but she’s a great companion for fun, go have fun with her. If your old friend went through this a few years ago and understands and wants to be there for you, see if you can schedule a weekly check in call. Parent support networks or groups can also be a great resource but only if they feel supportive. If they trigger a lot of comparison for you, “why are they ok and I’m not?”, consider taking a break from them. Check in with yourself through that self-compassionate lens, “what do I need and who can offer me that kind of support right now?”