How to Emotionally Prepare for Sending Your Kid to College

It can be difficult to watch your child head to college. Where did the time go, right? But there are simple ways to make this transition a bit easier.

There are some distinct moments in every caring parent's life that can hurt intensely and be 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 rising college freshman is now deemed an adult, you may feel that child is still 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 at 1 a.m. when college stress gets the best of them. Factor in when a college student is a parent's only child or leaving home during a challenging time, and the situation can be even more stressful.

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

An image of a mom hugging her daughter.
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."

Vicki Nelson, founder of College Parent Central

"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."

— Vicki Nelson, founder of College Parent Central

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.

Parents of college students can gain reassurance when they realize they are still important despite their roles being significantly different. Nelson emphasizes that students need their 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 different for different parents, but 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 co-founded 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' weekends), 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. Here are a few other ways to stay connected:

  • Consider sending small, helpful care packages.
  • If your student is not too far away, arrange to meet for dinner once a semester.
  • Create a family group chat.

It may feel tempting to want to call and text often, but remember that one key to staying connected is to give your student plenty of space to explore their new freedom without being smothered.

Find Outside Support

Parents of new 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 support system can include people you know personally or digital friends you meet online. Here are a few resources to check out.

Grown & Flown

Grown & Flown maintains a supportive Instagram account in addition to hosting an active Facebook group that has over a quarter of a million members and growing. The website offers an avenue for parents to post questions anonymously if needed. They cover an impressively vast array of topics from how to help your student with a dormmate they don't like all the way to how to deal with the fine-tuned nuances of empty nest syndrome.

Collegiate Parent

Collegiate Parent hosts a smaller Facebook group of around 5,000 members. The site features a great 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

Higher Ed Parent has offered helpful advice from educational professionals since 1997, as well as book recommendations such as Your Freshman Is Off to College: A Month-by-Month Guide to the First Year. Their website breaks up topics by life stages high schooler, college, and career to help parents find the right advice for their situation.

College parent Facebook groups

Many colleges and universities now offer a Facebook group specifically for parents of students. And some offer multiple groups to help parents in similar stages, such as incoming first-year students, upper-class students, athletes, and more. These Facebook groups can be a great resource for important information like dorm move-in days, sporting events and discounted tickets, and family weekend itineraries.

But they commonly present some awkward problems like inappropriate venting, meddling in academics, and even spreading misinformation and rumors. It is a wise idea to consider the pros and cons of these groups before joining one.

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.

You worked hard for this moment, but it's not the last milestone to look forward to. College can be a wonderful time of growth for your student—and you.

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