It can be difficult to deal with the day your child heads to college. Where did the time go, right? But experts say there are simple ways to make this transition a bit easier.

By Suzie C. Romig
March 10, 2021
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Some distinct moments in every caring parent's life can hurt intensely and are filled with so many tough emotions. Remember the first day dropping your child off at big kid school? That first scary or serious injury or surgery?

Sending your child to college can be painful to a parent's heart, too, and some parents of young teens say they are already dreading that day.

Even though your college freshman is now deemed an adult, parents may believe their child is too young and not ready to leave. Worries may intensify when thinking about phone calls from your student from the emergency room many miles away or when college stress makes them call you at 1 a.m. for a tearful verbal hug. Factor in when a college student is a parent's only child or leaving home during a pandemic and the situation can be even more stressful.

Luckily there are ways to prepare yourself emotionally for this big moment and make the transition easier on you and your college student.

An image of a mom hugging her daughter.
Credit: Getty Images. Art: Jillian Sellers.

Embrace a New Role

The key, experts say, is for parents to start preparing during the later high school years to transition from a caretaking role to a coaching role. "What makes it worse is when parents think, 'I need to completely abdicate and let go,'" says Vicki Nelson, who founded College Parent Central in 2009 to offer resources to parents of college students. "What we talk to parents a lot about is you are not really letting go. Parents are not completely out of the picture; it's just that your role shifts."

Nelson, who has worked for 40 years in higher education as a professor and academic advisor and has three college-graduate daughters, emphasizes the analogy of an athlete needing a good coach from the sideline.

College student parents can gain reassurance when they realize they are still important despite their role being significantly different. Nelson emphasizes that students "need parents to guide them, to mentor them, to give them feedback, to be a sounding board, to listen."

Ease Worries by Planning

Along with distance and empty nest syndrome, lack of preparation also plays a compounding role in ratcheting up parent worries and anxiety. Often parents and students can become so wrapped up in the steps of college applications, scholarships, and financial aid that they don't think about the upcoming lifestyle changes and how to prepare for the transition beyond the paperwork.

The key to calm parenting is to feel your student is prepared.

"The more you work with them in high school and know they can handle the things that can come along, the better, such as how to make a doctor's appointment, fill a prescription, how to talk to a professor," says Nelson. "What makes it worse is thinking about all the daily things I have handled for my child. Will he know how to do this?"

Keep in mind, becoming comfortable watching your child leave looks differently for different parents, and some concrete steps can help ease worries. For example, if students have health issues, parents can preregister them with an appropriate doctor in the college town, transfer prescriptions to the local pharmacy, and create a thorough dorm room medical kit.

If parenting concerns focus on campus safety or culture, they can attend a campus tour, ask questions, and take note of resources. If concerns focus on the student's transition to dorm life, parents can meet roommates and the resident assistant.

Make a Schedule to Stay Connected

Experts recommend parents and students decide in advance together about the frequency, times, and methods for staying in touch. Mary Dell Harrington, who cofounded the college resource website Grown & Flown in 2012, says her personal tactics to ease the transition were to look forward to future visits (such as parents' weekend), to understand her children preferred texts rather than calls, and to schedule a regular video chat with her student and the family dog (and thus the parents at the same time).

Of course, this might change from week to week, but it's a great idea to make it a point to factor in the time.

Find Outside Support

Parents of incoming college students can benefit greatly from seeking out resources to ease their own mental and emotional concerns. Harrington says connecting with other parents in the same stage is helpful. That can be people you know personally or digital friends you meet via social media.

Grown & Flown hosts an active Facebook group that has increased to 180,000 members in four years, and the site offers an avenue for parents to post questions anonymously if needed.

Collegiate Parent also hosts a smaller Facebook group and a helpful parent blog, while the site features a new column, "Dear Adina," offering practical and compassionate advice responding to readers' questions about supporting their young adults.

College Parent Central is also a comprehensive resource hub that offers advice through podcast episodes, articles, workshops, and book suggestions. Helpful topics include how to parent at a distance, anxiety, and signs your college student may be struggling.

Higher Ed Parent has offered helpful advice from educational professionals since 1997, as well as book referrals such as Your Freshman Is Off to College: A Month-by-Month Guide to the First Year.

Give Yourself Credit

Parents should always remember they have worked for years to prepare their children for the college experience. "Consciously or unconsciously, we have taught the lessons, set the boundaries, shared the wisdom, and provided the encouragement and support," says Nelson.