When Your Child Goes Off to College
Ah, those back-to-school photographs! Toward the end of each August I so enjoy scrolling through social media and seeing all of the cuties heading back to school. For at least that one picture, everything they’re wearing is sparkling new; white shoes, spotless backpacks and freshly washed clothes. Usually they are holding a sign (everything from cardboard with marker to changeable letter boards) announcing the new school year. You can just feel the excitement in the pictures!
Also during this time of year the pictures and videos start popping up of parents dropping their young adults off at college. One thing I’ve noticed from the outside looking in, is that these photographs reflect a bit different sentiment than those of the elementary through high school years. Gone are the “Third grade already? She’s growing up so fast!” comments, instead declaring things like, “Such a bittersweet day. I’m going to miss her so much.” With sending a child off to college, a parent experiences a flood of emotions that can catch them off-guard.
Having been a true “empty nester” for six years now, I realize how much the transition of those college years helps both parents and children navigate their way into the future. College years come with the awkwardness of figuring out just how much things will actually change. Every student needs to know that they continue to have unconditional love from their parents, regardless of any questionable choices they are about to make. Every parent needs to know that their child is safe, thriving, and continuing to rely on them once in a while.
During these years it is critical for parents and young adults to keep open the lines of communication. When my own sons were in college I quickly learned that most of my phone calls would go unanswered, but most of my texts would get a reply. I also learned that the rules we continued to have at home on weekends and summer breaks would be relentlessly tested, and that each goodbye hug was harder than the one before. Finances were tight for all of us; our students never had enough spending money and neither did we. The college years were definitely some of the best and most difficult years of parenting.
The best advice I can give you if you have a college student is to continually remind yourself that you are doing a great job, despite how you may feel. Our youngest son’s senior year of college was by far our most challenging. All four of the men in our household were in college that year – all three sons as well as my husband. I clearly remember one day when a telemarketer from a non-profit organization called our house, once again pleading for a donation. Rather than simply hanging up in her ear, I said something like, “We really can’t afford it right now. All three of our sons are in college.” After a brief pause the voice on the other line almost sounded choked up. She simply replied, “You must be so proud! I would have given anything for that.” Immediately all of the sacrifices and struggles seemed to melt away. It was worth every bit.
If you are an empty nester “newbie,” or are sending your young adult off to college, I would like to encourage you that these can be the best years yet. Everything you have done with and for your child has brought them to this time and place. You have given him/her the skills to navigate life and figure things out, while knowing you are their biggest cheerleader. You can do this! And we’ll all be cheering for you.
I’ve learned some things from experience that might help you in the coming years; I wish you the best.
- Keep those lines of communication open. Sometimes you even have to stop and have a discussion about maintaining contact with your young adult. Your desire to know how things are going in their lives is justified, but you may have to adjust your expectations a bit.
- Begin intentionally working on your friendships and family relationships. You may realize that your home feels empty or you have to fight loneliness, and having other relationships will help immensely. As a member of several empty nest communities, one common thread is that parents wish they had developed their own friendships more.
- Make a plan. If your child is coming home for a weekend or holiday, it’s great to discuss with them ahead of time how much time they’ll be spending with you. You can set yourself up for disappointment if you anticipate that they’ll spend every waking moment at home with you when in fact, they plan to spend most of the time with their friends. See #1.
- Spend time on a hobby. Always wanted to learn to play piano? Why not now? Begin to learn to do the things that you want to do, so that you can continue them into the future. Now is a great time to start something new or drag out that project you’ve always wanted to complete.
- Be an encourager. Your student needs positive words spoken into his/her life as often as possible. You have other friends going through the exact same thing who will need your encouragement as well.
- Acknowledge what you’re feeling. Allow yourself to grieve what once was, but stay determined not to “park” there. It isn’t healthy to pretend that everything is just fine, or to obsess over how much you are missing your child. Sometimes those waves of melancholy might rush over you without warning. Take the time you need to work through them.
- Be thankful. Nothing in the world keeps our thoughts and hearts in perspective like the feeling of gratitude. Gratitude shifts your focus and changes your attitude. Your child is living a full life, which is largely thanks to you. Be grateful for the years that you have shared and will continue to share together. Just think, now you get to be adult friends, and watch your child living out what was learned at home!
Photo by Alexandre Croussette