Sending your student off to college is a transition for the entire family. Students are figuring out who they are, what they want and what their future will look like with less supervision and direct guidance from family. And families are figuring out who they are as they take on a different role in the student’s life. Ultimately this transition of roles is not one that ends the day you drop your students off at college as first-years. Instead, the college years represent an ongoing process of separation, individuation and growth for students and families alike.
You can support your student in the process of separating from you in some important ways. Helping students feel confident and comfortable in their independence and skills means stepping back and letting students develop a life separate from the one they have at home. How this plays out may be different from family to family, but often includes things like encouraging students to stay at school on weekends; holding students responsible for tasks such as getting up in the morning, doing laundry, turning in assignments; talking through conflicts with students but letting them make decisions about how to handle those conflicts; encouraging exploration of majors and areas of interest; and being okay with the mistakes your students have to make along the way while being there to help them learn from those mistakes when they occur.
You can also support yourself in the process of separation in some important ways. Expect moments of difficulty. Just as your students may experience some homesickness, you too may be dealing with a sense of missing the old “normal.” And just as your student is spending time figuring out who they are separate from you, this can be a time for you to learn about yourself as a person separate from your student. Find new ways to fill the void your student’s absence may create—read that book that’s been sitting on your shelf, volunteer, spend more time with the children you may still have at home, develop new hobbies you’ve always wanted to try. Be intentional about how you will spend your first few days and weeks after your student leaves, as this is often the most difficult period of adjustment—we keep your students very busy here in their first days on campus, and you may want to do the same for yourself. Finally, seek support from those closest to you. If you find yourself feeling the emptiness of your student’s absence for a prolonged period of time, talk with someone (though NOT your student) about those feelings.
Despite the times of worry, loneliness and sadness, don’t forget that this is also a time of excitement and joy. You have put years of parenting into these students and it is now time for you to step back and watch them step out from the solid foundation that you have been instrumental in creating. And you can find new ways to be connected: plan to attend family weekend, send care packages, learn about the new friends your student is meeting and the activities they are trying, and celebrate your student’s independent successes.
So do you actually have to let go? Well…yes. But that’s not the end of the story. You also get something new and exciting to replace the void that may be created in letting go, and that relationship can be equally, if not more, fulfilling.