How to Survive When Your Child Leaves for College

When your child first leaves the nest and heads off to college, it’s indeed a very bittersweet time for most parents.  Mighty Mommy has been this route 4 times and shares 6 ways you can survive the bittersweet, early days when your child leaves for college.



Cheryl Butler,
Episode #443

The moment you first hold your new baby, you dream of all the amazing things he/she will do with his/her life. This beautiful new being is so full of possibility—the sky is the limit, his potential endless. And suddenly, in the mere blink of an eye, your sweet bundle of joy is in Kindergarten, getting a driver’s license, attending Senior Prom and then heading off to college! How the heck did that happen!?kid leaving for college

When your child leaves the nest and moves from his cozy, messy room off to a college dorm stacked with bunk beds and little or no closet space (sounds like my house!), you both realize that life as you knew it will probably never be the same.  Home cooked meals are no longer the norm, curfews—a thing of the past, pain-in-the-neck younger siblings temporarily fade into the distance, and that comfortable haven known as home-sweet-home is placed on the back burner while your college student adjusts to his/her new norm, all while you—the parent—try and hold it all together and make sense of your brand new role—college parent.

When your child first leaves the nest and heads off to college, it’s indeed a very bittersweet time for most parents.  We are excited and proud of this amazing new milestone—college bound, but we are also vulnerable—our job as our child’s immediate caregiver and protector is now changing gears and we need to learn a brand new set of coping mechanisms—so that we can embrace and encourage their new college role all while figuring out how we can remain strong.

Mighty Mommy has been down this route 4 times, and shares 6 ways you can survive the bittersweet, early days when your child leaves for college.

Tip #1:  Allow Yourself Time to Grieve

When my oldest daughter left for New York City, I felt like someone had knocked the wind right out of me.  I was thrilled for my country bumpkin to head off to one of the world’s largest, most exciting cities, but I was also left breathless at the thought of her being on her very own while I stayed behind with the rest of our family.   The first five minutes after we parted for the first time was surreal.  I remember putting on a very brave face, and as I hugged her for the last time my eyes welled with hot, salty tears and my heart nearly burst with grief and mixed emotions.

Turns out, my feelings of such emptiness were completely normal.  In The Secrets to Staying Happy After Your Child Heads off to University, the article states, “The sadness parents can feel when offspring head off to college or university often comes as a shock, reports Glynis Kelly, child protection officer at Cornwall College. “For some it is akin to grieving, such is the intensity of the feeling of loss – and all relationships shift gear, causing some unfamiliar tensions as family members learn new ways of interacting with each other.”

I admit, I cried on and off for a few days after my daughter first left, but it was a great release to let the tears flow, and I felt much better within a few short days knowing that was settling in to a great new “home away from home” at her new school.

Tip #2:  Prepare Yourself  

When my first child left for college, truthfully—I was totally unprepared.  Sure, she and I had gone shopping for all the dorm essentials, picked the right meal plan and strategized about how she would make the most of any awkward roommate scenarios such as snoring, walking around the dorm room scantily clad or passing gas, but what I hadn’t counted on was the tremendous ache in my heart when I drove off and left her, to fend for herself, while I returned to our suburban lifestyle with 7 other kids.

In How to deal when a child heads off to college: A parent's survival guide, my feelings were completely validated.

“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."

The article goes on to say, “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.”

Tip #3: Find Comfort in Other Freshman Parents

No matter what difficult (or joyful) situation I’ve been faced with I’ve always found comfort when I can share my feelings or experiences with others who are standing in my same shoes.  For example, when I experienced 5 years of infertility my husband and I joined a very intimate support group of others who were also trying to conceive.  Just being able to share similar stories of the ups and downs of trying to get pregnant was an amazing comfort to both of us.

If you have bonded with some of your child’s high school parents, don’t be afraid to lean on one another as you regroup and begin to redefine your roles as the parents of college freshman.  You’re all experiencing similar feelings, so stand together as you mourn the very normal feelings of watching your child fly out of the nest and get established in his/her new role in college.  You can also celebrate the amazing excitement together when your freshman comes home for the holidays, takes exams for the first time, and even calls looking for money within the first few weeks of school!


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