Letting go of your first-year college student

August 24, 1995
  • umichnews@umich.edu

ANN ARBOR—In the month before first-year students pack their bags for college, their normally peaceful families become snappish and over-stressed.

Children shout that they can’t wait to go. Parents snarl back, sotto voce, “I can’t wait to see you go.” And yet … everyone is feeling guilty and a little bit sad. What is going on here?

“The trauma of letting go,” explains Shirley Bradshaw, a counselor at University of Michigan Counseling and Psychological Services. “About one month before students leave—sometimes as soon as summer begins—parents of first-year students and the students themselves are hit with separation anxiety.

“Parents worry about how their child will cope and simultaneously look forward with relief to having their child off to college. They feel guilty about their anticipation, but this is normal.”

The process of separating will continue well into the first year, Bradshaw says. To make the break somewhat easier, she suggests that parents take the following steps:

behavior, talk about your anxiety with your child.

“I am not suggesting a crying session,” she cautions. “Talk calmly about how you feel and take ownership of your feelings. That is, make it clear that your child shouldn’t feel guilty or responsible for making you feel comfortable, because they can’t.”

good-byes at home. “The move-in to residence halls is incredibly busy. Students are unpacking, meeting roommates and going off to meetings.” Alternatively, plan a special dinner on campus where things won’t be so hectic to say good-bye.

of parenthood and entering the supportive zone.

“You need to use your listening skills more than ever before. Offer guidance only when asked. Reassure your child that he or she can cope with the college experience and that you will be there for them” if they need you.

“Above all, don’t flood them with last-minute advice and lectures about success. Letting go means showing your abounding love with open arms, open eyes, and closed mouth,” she advises.

your answering machine and screen the calls. When you do return the call, push them gently out into the world. Encourage them to explore campus groups and make new friends. If they are really discouraged, tell them to contact student counseling services.”

section devoted to ‘I know you can do it’ messages, and kids love them, especially if they are a long way from home.” Also, e-mail can be a less costly way to communicate, if you have access to it at home or the office.

Many students are learning that they are no longer a big fish in a little pond, and their self-esteem is shaken. They may have gotten their first ‘C’ or even a ‘D.’

“How you respond depends on your child. Some need to hear that you will love them no matter what. Others need some gentle guidance. You could ask, ‘Could you have done better if you wanted to? Should you talk to you professor or your teaching assistant? Are there resources on campus that might help” study groups, computer labs?’ It helps if parents know about these resources,” she adds.

–Don’t visit until you are invited or until Parent’s Weekend. “Respect your child’s time, privacy and independence. If you suggest a visit and they turn you down, don’t be offended. Their lives are extremely busy now. Surprise visits are particularly disruptive, so call before you come.”

in on every tragic mishap in the neighborhood. Keep them updated but don’t generate anxiety, stress or depression unnecessarily. Give them good news about their brothers and sisters, and try to include a funny story.”

expectations about their return to house rules. But remember, said Bradshaw, “although you sent a high school student off to college, a young adult is coming home. Not that they will be fully mature” many will revert to high school behavior at home” but encourage them to behave as adults by treating them as adults.

“Leave their messy rooms as they are, and if you set your alarm for the middle of the night when they were teens so you could check to see that they had come home, turn off the alarm now. Forget curfews and get some sleep.”