Preparing to Send a Child to College: A Guide for Parents

Preparing to Send a Child to College: A Guide for Parents
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Preparing to Send a Child to College: A Guide for Parents

At some point, back to school season starts to look less like shopping for crayons, notebooks and lunchboxes and more like meeting roommates, dorm decorating and shopping for the perfect mini fridge.

Going to college is a huge milestone, for both the student and their parents. It can also be an emotional time for everyone involved. As exciting as the transition is, it can be tricky for parents and students to navigate the change.

We sat down with Matt Lundquist, founder and clinical director of Tribeca Therapy, to talk about how parents can prepare for sending their child to college.

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Going off to college is a big life change, for both the student going to school and for the parent. What effect can this have on parents, the student and their relationship with each other?

It can’t be overstated how profound the experience is.

In the best of circumstances parents can take comfort in having given their child what they’ve needed in the previous 18 years (or so) and trust, in many ways, the work of preparing children for this milestone of independence has been happening all along.

That does mean it’s easy. In developmental psychology we call this stage of developing independence “emancipation” which is a rather grand word that lends some appropriate gravity to the occasion.

As is true with many aspects of parenting it’s important for parents to keep in mind that many of the ways this is difficult for them, as parents, are different from the ways this is difficult for their children. It’s best to try not to mix up those feelings. Parents and children need different things at this time.

For parents, sending their first or oldest child to college is a huge milestone, but it can also be emotional for everyone involved. How can parents navigate this with their students?

For the most part it’s something to simply get through, to tolerate that there’s an amount of “too muchness” in separating. Like many developmentally normal milestones it might simply hurt.

There’s an element of grief, not because anything is wrong or because the relationship itself is ending, but we have to greet the enormity of the moment and there is a grief of sorts: A loss of a relationship organized in a particular way in favor of a new relationship that while wonderful is quite different.

When a youngest child goes to school, it’s not uncommon for parents to get a sense of empty nest syndrome. What effects can empty nest syndrome have on parents?

This is quite real and not to be underestimated. Parents, to a degree, organize their lives around this very important relationship and role. They need to find new ways of occupying their time, new outlets for their desire to caretake, and find new ways of relating to one another.

What can parents do to combat these effects and navigate this change?

I recommend taking this in as something that affects everything. It really is that big. I think it’s a good moment for many parents to evaluate all aspects of their lives–friendships, their relationship with one another, how they find meaning in the world.

In any case, going off to college is a turning point in a parent-child relationship, which can cause tension sometimes. How can parents navigate this changing relationship with their children?

Much of the tension comes out of the gravity of the change so it’s best that lots of room be made to acknowledge those feelings head on. Parents often joke (but are they really joking?) about being in denial that their child (or their youngest) is due to leave soon.

While joking about it can be a way of acknowledging it, the more room that’s made to feel and accept it, the better.

If a child is moving away for school, what should a parent’s involvement be as the student adjusts to living on their own for the first time?

I think the parents should do as much as is necessary and as little a possible. What I mean by that is that for students, living independently, learning to take on the new challenges of life at colleges is done best when they’re able to draw on resources they didn’t know they had.

When parents do too much they interfere. That, of course, needs to be balanced with understanding when there’s a genuine need and can require some feeling out.

Coming home for term breaks can also be a source of tension between parents and students, especially if a student has less freedom and autonomy at home than they do at school. How can parents and students navigate this?

Talking about it in advance is one important part, especially in making any household rules clear (and perhaps open for negotiation). There also needs to be an appreciation for some space to “feel things out.”

I’d flag that young adults may be in denial of just how much they’ve been missing their parents and their need to connect so I’d advocate for leaving room for time together even if at first that need isn’t evident.