Whether it is your first child or your last child to leave the nest, it can be a very traumatic time for parents. It's easy to start second-guessing yourself about how well you have prepared them to be out on their own. And then there are the thoughts swirling around in your head about how things will be different at home. You tell yourself this is what you've been working toward all these years, but there's just something about letting go.
Thousands of young people go to college, leaving their parents wondering what they will do with all this new time on their hands. While they understand that their role has changed, they are not quite sure what that means. Those who have already braved the transition knowingly encourage parents who are just beginning the journey.
There is no question your role as parent shifts as your young adult grows even more independent. It definitely helps to focus on the idea that your child is becoming his/her own person and pursuing his/her dreams. Some parents really mourn this milestone, and there is nothing wrong with that. It is for sure a shift. Now, you get to watch them spread their wings while you are kind of in the background being supportive and encouraging as well as providing a safe place for them to come for rest.
For those who are beginning this adventure, it might be helpful to know a few things. Not everybody deals with this transition the same way. One parent may be experiencing tremendous grief while the other is excited, not just for their college student but also for the transition at home. Be careful not to judge. Instead, make time for conversation to check in with each other to see how each of you is navigating through the change.
Talk about ways you can proactively encourage your student while also caring for your own needs. Since you are going from seeing your son or daughter every day to not seeing them, it might be helpful to write them weekly letters. Students say there is nothing better than going to their mailbox and actually having real mail. Periodic phone calls are great for staying connected, but letters are something they can keep and read over and over again.
If you are in the midst of making this transition, here are some suggestions for getting through the initial shock:
» Have a plan. Don't wait until the last minute to think about how you will deal with the extra time on your hands. Have some projects planned that you can focus on. Be intentional about planning things you can do on the weekend.
» Set limits for yourself. As your child settles into a new routine, there will be lots of demands on their time. Instead of calling every day, let your child make the first phone call and try to limit yourself to checking in once a week. Email is also a great way to stay in touch and be supportive without being intrusive.
» Be there when your child needs you. The first few months may also be hard for your child. Encourage them to hang in there. Send care packages and cards. Make your home a refuge they will want to come back to. Avoid making major changes to your child's room.
» Consider the next thing. You have been given the gift of being a parent for a season of life. As that role changes, you will want to consider what's next. Keep your eyes and heart open to where you need to go in life and what you want your life to be about.
In this day and time, letting go can be especially hard. It would be a shame to be so wrapped up in your loss that you miss what your child needs from you in this season of their life. Different seasons call for changes and adjustments, and although this particular season is new to you, remember that you've dealt with changes and challenges since you brought them home. All those moments have led you to this place.
Julie Baumgardner is president and CEO of family advocacy nonprofit First Things First. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.