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How Parents Can Cope With Their Kids Leaving for College

It was a moment I’d been dreading. I had a vision in my mind of how the day we dropped my daughter off at college would go. We’d all be crying, have one final hug and then as we were walking away from the dorm, we’d look back to see her waving sorrowfully from the window. A really sad, depressing song would be playing somewhere in the background.

That’s not how it went at all.

Minutes before her dad, her sister and I were about to take her back to her dorm after dinner, she got a call from her best friend with an invite to her first college party. She changed into a mini-dress in the backseat of the car, and we said our goodbyes in the dark driveway of a frat house. We watched as she strode away in her high heels towards an apartment with lasers beaming and techno blaring from the backyard.

As jarring as that departure was, it was probably for the better. It helped to mitigate a lot of the sadness I’d been feeling at seeing my daughter leave home, and although I did tear up later at an insurance commercial that came on the radio, we were laughing on the way home instead of crying.

It also helped to know I wasn’t alone. At the same moment, or in the days and hours before and after we dropped our daughter off, there were so many other parents going through the exact same emotions.

Your New Role

It’s an exciting thing to see your child take flight, but at the same time, excruciatingly hard to let go and adjust to your new life. Who are we going to tell to put on their sweater? Is it possible to actually miss seeing clothes strewn all over the bathroom floor?

In her book, “From Mom to Me Again: How I Survived My First Empty-Nest Year and Reinvented the Rest of My Life,” author Melissa T. Schultz describes the leaving-for-college period aptly as going from “being constantly on call to not being called.”

Schultz confirms what many might be feeling: that it’s usually harder on us parents than it is on our kids who are leaving.

“Kids move out emotionally at least a year before they do physi­cally,” she writes in the Washington Post. “And it’s important to remember that it’s mostly a one-sided thing – we’re the ones who are left behind with memories of them in every corner. As far as leaving us is concerned, in their minds, we’re always here – they know where to find us.”

Dealing with suddenly “not being on call” can be hard, and the challenge is to find ways to stay close without being overbearing.

Glennia Campbell, a lawyer from Northern California, found a way to still feel connected to her son after he left for college that is beneficial to both parties.

“I sent him a monthly care package with a theme,” she says. “Sometimes it was holiday-based, others, just something I knew he liked, like sports gear or weird office supplies. I usually included gift cards and random things from his room, along with his favorite cereal and snacks.

“Shopping for little things and putting it all together made me feel closer to him.”

The Flipside

Of course, there’s also the other side of the coin: It might actually be kind of nice to have them away and out of the house.

Dawn Rouse, a professor from Ontario, says she enjoys the time – and space – away from her college kid. “My daughter texts me about 47 times a day when she is away. I practically never feel like she leaves,” she laughs.

“And believe me, I would be fine with some more space. It’s actually super hard when she comes home for the summer, since we have adjusted. I get [cranky] for a month or more.”

But this time away from your kids is healthy and Schultz even advises parents to relish the time, and use it to reconnect with each other and to participate in non-parent activities.

For Illinois consultant Kim Moldofsky, that meant rediscovering an old ritual that eventually turned into a new, enlightening tradition for her and her husband.

“Though we are not very religiously observant and I’m mostly a happy empty-nester (who enjoys when the kids come home), when my husband suggested we light Shabbat candles on our first Friday night in our empty nest it, seemed like a sad and lonely thing to do,” Moldofsky recalls.  

“I decided it was time to rekindle an old tradition along with the candles. We now host a monthly potluck Shabbat Salon for an evening of child-free food and a conversation. They are interesting, fun, and frankly balm for the soul during these turbulent times.” 

One of the most popular topics that came up in speaking with parents about their coping strategies was social media. While we all love to hate on technology, everyone agreed that texting, Facebook and Instagram provide a much-needed lifeline to our kids.

Writer and mom of two Mir Kamin says it’s important to know their apps and speak their language. “Get Snapchat or Instagram if you don’t have them already because even busy, not-terribly-communicative kids respond to memes and silly pics,” she advises.

And while texting is definitely the communication mode of choice, getting them to text back is an entirely other issue. (After five minutes without an answer I’m usually convinced they’re unconscious and locked in someone’s trunk.)

Jamie Pearson, an adoption specialist from Palo Alto, has a trick for getting her kids to respond. “When you really need to hear back from them, text photos of family pets. Never fails,” she says.

Most of all, experts say, while seeing our kids leaving for college is certainly hard, it should also be celebrated as a joyful milestone for both kids and parents.

“Remind yourself of all the things you’ve done to prepare your teen for this big day and that it is part of life and needs to happen,” adolescent and family psychologist Jennifer Hartstein  advises in Schultz’s book. “Although it may feel sad, it’s important that your child move into the world.”

It’s been a year-and-a-half since we dropped our daughter off at college on that August evening, and while we miss her every day, it’s been so gratifying to see how she’s grown and matured since she’s been away.

And I realize now that the moment she left us that night went exactly as it should have. Instead of seeing her sadly waving us goodbye, we were fortunate to witness our strong, beautiful girl as she walked fiercely and determined into the unknown.

Related: How Not to Get Overwhelmed Freshman Year

Author: Marsha Takeda-Morrison

Marsha Takeda-Morrison lives in Los Angeles with her husband and two daughters. In her former life she was an art director, but began writing 12 years ago chronicling her family’s life on her personal blog, Sweatpantsmom. She went on to write for Babble, Yahoo!, Genlux Magazine, Cool Mom Picks and She frequently covers pop culture and has interviewed the likes of Paris Hilton, Jessica Alba, Kim Kardashian and Mila Kunis. While she spends a lot of time in Hollywood she has never had plastic surgery, given birth to an actor’s child, or been on a reality show. Yet.