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When Your Oldest Child Leaves for College: Mixed Emotions

When the first child leaves for college, is it a time of "freak out" or freedom?

Stories and articles about a first child leaving for college often point to this time of life as being “difficult,” “unsettling” or plain downright “disturbing” for the parents.  But is this common wisdom really true?

When an oldest child goes to college a parent may miss them a great deal, particularly if the relationship is a very close one.  However, it doesn’t mean a parent feels intense longing, prolonged sadness or empty nest grief – even if there are no other children at home.  If the lines of communication are open, you will still be speaking with your child regularly.   Indeed, you may be able to become even closer with your child because with distance, their autonomy is no longer threatened.  They no longer have to fight you to establish their independence.  As one mother said about her son away at college, “We can talk about different things.  I enjoy and like the adult he’s turned out to be.”

That’s not to say the impending separation from home always goes smoothly. Sometimes conflict is the only way, a child and parent can separate.  For example, one mother reported to me, that the summer before college she and her daughter fought all summer.  By the time she drove her daughter to school, “I couldn’t wait for her to get out of the car.”  It was the only way they could say good-bye.  This mother also, had an additional concern, as her daughter had recently been diagnosed with diabetes.  Some children, the summer before college, may become aloof.  Other children may suddenly have physical ailments that need to be addressed.  A child may become very anxious.  This emotion becomes contagious.  The parents pick up on their child’s anxiety and in turn, become anxious too.  Indeed, a child going off to college often experiences some ambivalence.  They want to leave home and be independent but at the same time are frightened wondering, “Who will take care of me?!”

Other stumbling blocks to separation may be a parent’s fears about their child’s emotional or physically safety.  Some parents feel that they can only protect their child if they are physically present.  This is a kind of “magical thinking.”   Some parents may hold onto their child like a life preserver.  Indeed, they may be much more dependent on their child than their child is on them.  Their child may be their best friend, confidante or surrogate spouse.  This kind of parent counts on their child for their own happiness and can make a child feel guilty for leaving.  To what extent this may go on, depends a great deal on the quality of the marital relationship and what other interests the parent has outside of childrearing.  This feeling may be particularly acute for some stay-at-home mothers or for parents who are single or divorced.  However, if you have an extreme sense of loss, something is missing in your own life.  Lastly, a parent may find they have some feelings of envy for their child’s upcoming new experiences or feel one’s chronological age.

An oldest child going to college is a developmental milestone.  However, if you fully embrace each stage of a child’s life and your own life is fulfilling , it’s not a loss.  It is simply the next stage.  As one mother said, “Having a child away at school is surprisingly wonderful.”  She then added,  “You see your child become a ‘person.’  You watch as they choose their friends, form their beliefs, and create their own community.”   Another mother commented,  “I’ve done most of my work and she’s turned into a great person.”

Then of course, with one less child at home, there is less cleaning up, less shopping, less chauffeuring, less laundry, and less homework.  It can be wonderfully liberating. There also, is still graduation from college in the future.  As one parent said, “While they're in college they're still your kid.”  Graduation from college, “That’s the real milestone!”

 For more information, Dr. Schwartz can be contacted at 203-539-1255.

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

Amo Probus May 25, 2012 at 10:25 AM
Those mixed feelings flip around when they return as jobless graduates
Glenn Wolff, LCSW May 29, 2012 at 05:54 PM
Laurel, Great article! I'm facing the same anxieties with my son starting middle school. So, I guess, it's common to many parents no matter the age of their child.

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