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Preparing to leave the nest | photo by Anca Muresan via Unsplash

Leaving for College: 4 Steps for Parents to Prepare Themselves

May 11, 2021

by Margaret Lipman, guest contributor

No matter how many times you’ve imagined the moment unfolding, it will undoubtedly be a bittersweet occasion when your child really does “leave the nest.” In many ways, of course, this is a time of great joy, as they embark on the first steps of their adult life. Feel free to congratulate yourself for having nurtured and guided them to the point where they’re mature and independent enough to leave home and embark on their college journey. Take pride in the fact that you’ve raised a smart and adventurous young person who is now ready to take on the world.

At the same time, however, watching your child leave for college can be hugely difficult. Even while recognizing that your child is headed for a bright future and that a college education can help make that possible, it’s an emotional time, and you may struggle with feelings of loss. After all, it’s a major change when the child you’ve raised for 18 years is suddenly absent from your daily life. 

On the other hand, you may also be feeling excited to see what the next chapter of life has in store. You’ll have more time for yourself, and possibly additional opportunities to travel, take up a new hobby, or even move to a new home.

There’s no “right way” to feel about your child leaving, so whether you’re anxious, sad, excited, or a combination of all three, that’s alright. Regardless of how you’re feeling, there are some steps you can take to prepare yourself for when your child leaves for college, and which will make the transition as easy as possible for both you and your child. 

1. Support your child throughout the college admissions process

You’ll feel a lot better about your child going off to college if you’ve been involved in the application process. Talking to your child about majors and career options, taking them on college visits, and helping them apply for scholarships and financial aid will help set them up for success in higher education. 

Once they’ve been accepted to college, spend some time teaching your child about essential life skills such as budgeting, filing taxes, cooking, using public transportation, and doing laundry. 

Painful as it is to wave goodbye when you drop them off for freshman orientation, knowing that you’ve helped them make good decisions about their future will fill you with confidence that you’ve prepared your child for the best possible start to their adult life.

2. Make a plan for how you’ll stay connected

As the parent of a soon-to-be college student, it may be difficult to imagine what life will be like without your child in the house. Having good communication will be important for many reasons. Not only will it provide you with the peace of mind that they are safe, secure, and thriving, but it will also help you and your child forge a new kind of relationship, now that you are both adults. Thanks to technology such as smartphones, email, WhatsApp, Skype, and FaceTime, staying in touch couldn’t be easier, so choose the communication method that works best for your family. 

Be open and honest with your child – don’t be afraid to admit that you’ll miss them and that you would really appreciate staying connected. Work on finding the right balance, so that you don’t feel like a “helicopter parent” who isn’t giving their child their freedom, or worse, making them feel guilty about leaving home. At the same time, remind your child that they will always be incredibly important to you, even though you’ll no longer see each other on a daily basis. 

Chances are, although your child may appear elated to be embarking on this new journey, they’re probably feeling some degree of nervousness. Make sure they know that they can always call you, day or night. No matter how old they are or how far away they live, you are still their parent, and they will always need you. 

3. Consider what you’ll do with your newfound free time

Sending your son or daughter off to college is likely to leave you feeling empty or listless, especially if they are your youngest child or an only child. And while you’ll never replace the experience of raising your child, it’s worth thinking about how you’ll adapt to having more time on your hands, before it becomes a reality. Many empty nesters embrace new hobbies, undertake DIY projects, get involved with volunteering, travel, or consider downsizing or moving to a new city. 

Although you should let yourself work through your feelings of grief and loss at your own pace, keeping busy and thinking about the future will help you find meaningful ways to spend your time and acquire a newfound sense of purpose.

4. Be prepared to feel strong emotions, and don’t ignore them

No matter how much you’ve mentally prepared for your child’s departure, helped them get ready for college, and found new hobbies and activities to keep yourself busy, you won’t know exactly how you’ll feel until the moment when you actually drop them off. Be prepared for a whole range of emotions, and don’t feel embarrassed or ashamed, no matter what. 

Mothers, fathers, step-parents, guardians, and foster parents can all experience empty nest syndrome – whether you’re a stay-at-home parent or work outside of the home full-time. One’s children leaving home is likely to affect people differently, and unexpectedly. To help ease the transition, consider reading a self-help book, speaking to a counselor or therapist, or reaching out to friends and family (or an online community) for support, especially if they’ve gone through a similar experience themselves. Seeing your children move away from home is an inevitable aspect of parenting, but it’s one that you don’t have to deal with alone.  

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