Going off to and at College: Parents and Emerging Adults in Transition

going off to collegeJennifer Dunitz-Geiringer, JD, MSW
Education and Career Specialist

It is the best of times and it is the worst of times – as parents and emerging adults approach the weeks leading up to post-secondary educational “launches,” the hallmark of these relationships is uncertainty and unpredictability. Just as every person is unique, so too is every parent/child relationship. Therefore, it is important to honor not only the needs of each individual involved in the transition, it is equally important to honor the nature of the relationship itself and to set expectations about that relationship going forward that are realistic and mutually agreed upon.

Lisa V., a mother of four from Deerfield, Illinois, has successfully shepherded two of her children through the transition process, and is preparing to launch her third child at the end of this summer. Lisa explained that each experience has been “completely different and has brought up different feelings based not only on the child leaving, but also on the family left behind.” Lisa’s first child took an international gap year prior to beginning her freshman year of college at a Big Ten school. Having this year to adjust to her daughter living on her own prior to beginning school made the actual experience of sending her child off to her freshman year of college “easy in many ways.” Lisa explained that she and her daughter had a very close relationship prior to her “launch” and that this set the tone for the nature of the relationship that they enjoyed once she settled into college life. She was “grateful for cell phone communication and texted with (her) daughter multiple times each day.” Lisa and her daughter agreed to the frequency of communication they wished to have with one another, and this made the practical aspect of the transition go very smoothly.

Lisa described her emotional state in the weeks following her daughter’s departure as “incredibly sad” because she missed her daughter so much, and also because it changed the family dynamic at home. She “felt like they didn’t have a complete family anymore.” However, Lisa also felt “so much joy because (her daughter) was so happy.” She and her family simply “had to get used to their new normal.”

When Lisa launched her second child, a son, to another Big Ten school, the experience was much less emotional because her son had a completely different temperament and the nature of their relationship was far less “hands on” than that with her daughter. With her son, Lisa found herself having to “avoid stepping on his toes as he prepared to leave for school” and had to learn to let him make his own choices without asking for her advice. As Lisa prepares to send her third child to college in August, she describes the practical aspects of the transition as being even easier because of her son’s expectations and the “more laid back tone of their relationship.” Although Lisa clearly loves each of her children equally, her emotional experience of launching them into independence was completely different each time.

Yael Z., a mother of three also from Deerfield, is preparing to send her twins to college in August. She describes her emotional state as “so thrilled for them but also so sad because (she) will miss them so much.” Their relationship has been more riddled with anxiety in the past few months than it has been in the past, as they all prepare for the transition to college life. Yael lamented that not only is this a time to transition to college, but it “really is the first step towards their independent life.” She recognizes that her daughters may return home for holidays but that there is also a chance that they will never move back home again, especially considering that they are attending college overseas. Like with Lisa’s children, Yael and her children have set clear expectations and boundaries for communication, and she believes that this will help make the transition easier for all of them.

Both mothers’ experiences illustrate wonderful examples of the emotional and practical aspects of launching their children into post-secondary studies. At Yellowbrick we offer the following guidance to parents getting ready to launch their children into their post-secondary life:

  • Establish clear expectations for frequency of communication prior to their departure, taking into account the needs and wishes of all parties involved;
  • Allow yourself to feel the full range of emotions that may develop, and recognize that it is completely normal to feel tremendous sadness and joy at the same time: honor and give voice to all of it;
  • In this age when parents are so involved in their children’s lives, give your child the independence and space to make choices and decisions on their own;
  • Focus on nurturing the relationships with your children who remain at home, and give them space to adjust to the “new normal” as well;
  • If you have a significant other at home, give yourselves time to rediscover one another in a new context and give yourselves room to grow together;
  • Make your own friendships a priority;
  • Discover hobbies and interests to either hone or begin, preferably ahead of time;
  • Do not impose your emotional state on your children; and
  • Ask your children what they need and listen when they tell you.

Most importantly, remember that your children will be okay, and eventually, so will you!

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