10 Tips for Saying Goodbye to Your College-Bound Child

Mother and daughter hugging near car
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For many parents, saying goodbye to a daughter or son headed off to college is one of life's most wrenching moments. As a parent, you want to leave your child on an upbeat note, and you may try to squelch any worry or sadness. Don't fight it—it's a natural response. After all, a child who's been a primary focus of your life is about to strike out on his or her own, and your own role will be reduced. So how do you minimize the tears and roll with the changes? These 10 tips—covering the three phases of saying goodbye—provide perspectives on the parting process for college students and their parents.

The Year Before Departure

Your child's senior year is pressure-filled with worries about college applications and acceptances, concerns with maintaining grades and doing many things for the last time. Although your teen may mourn final events shared by the school community (last homecoming dance, football game, school play, musical concert, prom), it's harder to come to terms with personal losses that can't be publicly shared. Instead of being present with the sadness, many teens find it easier to express anger, and those outbursts may be directed at family members. They may subconsciously think it's easier to part from a "stupid, whining" younger sister or a "controlling, uncaring" parent than close family members whom they love and are afraid to leave; thus, they may act in ways that create a distance.

  • Ignore the nasty outbursts and the labels. This is not your teen hating on you—it's your teen subconsciously trying to make it easier to disengage from the family. Many families report that more arguments break out in the final months before college than ever before. Your teen may label you or other family members, but that's not a judgment on you as a parent. It's stereotyping just like the labels "ugly stepsister" or "evil stepmother" are caricatures and stereotypes. It's easier to imagine a bright future at college when you're leaving behind a stereotypical "clinging" mother, "overbearing" father, or younger sibling who's "always butting in."
  • Don't take it personally. You aren't doing anything wrong—this is just a normal part of growing up. Teens who are trying to find independence need to differentiate themselves from parents and family and express their own strong opinions and ideas of how things should be done. Don't come to the conclusion that your children have always hated you and that their real nature is coming out now that they're leaving for college. It's just part of the separation process and is a temporary stage of development. Don't take it to heart; it's not your child talking—it's the fear of leaving home and entering the adult world that's lashing out at you.
  • Keep calm and carry on. You may be shopping for bedsheets or towels and a fight erupts over the smallest of things. Take a deep breath, keep calm, and carry on with what you're doing. Resist the urge to give up and do it another day. The more you can stick with your routines and all your planned college preparation, the more you'll minimize conflict and stress. It won't be easier to shop or get through your child's college to-do list if you postpone it for a better day because that day may not come unless you keep it together and deal with these moments calmly.

The School Drop-Off

Move-in day is always chaotic and disorganized. You may have been assigned a specific move-in time or arrive as one of the hundreds of cars queued up to drop off boxes and suitcases. Whatever the situation, let your child take the lead. One of the worst things parents can do that can earn them the "helicopter" label is to micromanage every aspect of move-in day and make their daughter or son seem childish and helpless, especially in front of the RA or dorm mates they will be living with. Let your student sign in, pick up the dorm key or key card, and find out about the availability of equipment such as hand trucks or moving carts. Although you might want to do things differently, it's your incoming freshmen's new life and new dorm room, not yours. There are no prizes for the person who moves in first, so don't feel as if you have to rush. Likewise, there is no right or wrong.

  • Remember whose college life this is. One emotion that parents feel (but are reluctant to acknowledge) is regret or jealousy. All of us have some happy memories of college, and if we could turn the clock back, most of us would be eager to relive a day or two of our college experiences. Don't beat yourself up over this; envy is something many parents feel. You're not the only one, and this doesn't make you a bad parent. But don't let that jealousy influence your students' first day at college. Let them find their own experiences in their own time.
  • Don't pass judgment. Maybe their new roommate looks like a hot mess and the teen down the hall seems like a better fit. No matter what your opinions are, keep them to yourself, and don't share your comments with your child. Living independently means making your own judgments and assessing people and situations by yourself. If you walk into your children's college life and already start making these assessments, you've disenfranchised them without even realizing it and are not giving them the chance or the credit to make up their own mind about things. Be pleasant, positive, and neutral about all that happens.
  • Let your student do the talking. There'll be a lot of new people to meet and names to remember. And that's your child's job to keep it all straight, not yours. If you're the parent of a socially awkward or shy student, you may find it hard not to jump in and take over the situation, make introductions all around, and negotiate the top or bottom bunk or the better dresser and desk for your offspring. Keep reminding yourself that it's not your college experience or your decision to make—it's your children's. Any choice that they make is the right one because they made it themselves.
  • Prepare for not being completely prepared. No matter how far in advance you plan or how thorough you are in your list making, shopping, and packing, you'll either forget something or find that certain things don't work in your child's new living arrangements or new life. Don't overbook your drop-off day with no extra time to run to the nearest drugstore, supermarket, or discount store, because you will want to pick up those essentials you somehow overlooked. It's a lot easier for you to make that quick trip by car instead of leaving your child with extra cash and expecting him or her to walk or take a bus to unfamiliar locations. Plan an extra two hours of unscheduled time so you can take care of these sorts of things.
  • Be like Goldilocks' porridge: just right. Take a cue from the story "The Three Little Bears." When the time comes to say goodbye and leave your child at school, don't be too warm (weepy and wailing and clutching on for dear life) and don't be too cold (distant and perfunctory in your hug goodbye and too matter-of-fact in your emotions). Strive to be just right. It's OK to shed some tears and give your child a good, solid, "I'll really miss you" bear hug and say how much you love and will miss him or her. Kids expect that and actually feel hurt if you don't show sufficient emotion. This is not the time to put on the brave, stoic face. Show the honest emotions of a parent who loves a child and finds it hard to pull away. After all, that's exactly what you're feeling, and honesty is the best policy.

Post Drop-Off Days and Weeks

  • You've said goodbye. Now mean it. Hard to believe, but there are parents who immediately text their children the minute they get in the car and drive away. Put the phone down and give them their space. Don't call every day to make sure everything's OK. If at all possible, let your child be the one to touch base. Many parents agree on a predetermined day and time to talk to their child by phone or Skype, typically once a week. By respecting boundaries and their need to separate, you will help your child establish an independent life and develop a new support network of others they can trust.
  • Don't hover, but be there. Many parents use social media to keep track of their kids at college and ask their children to "friend" them so they can maintain contact. Watch and look, but don't post or comment. Let them have their own space. And if your child tells you about incidents at college that are upsetting, resist the urge to get involved unless she asks you to intervene. Part of growing up involves facing difficult or challenging moments and finding a way through those hard times. Signs of maturity include flexibility, adaptability, and resilience, and college is the ideal time to work on these skills. But if situations escalate to the point at which they threaten your child's physical or mental health—or put him or her in jeopardy—step in and offer aid, but ask for permission first. You want to support your child as much as possible but not to the extent that you dismantle the initial foundation of self-sufficiency. Finding the right balance will take time, but eventually, you'll both get there.