Tips: Empty Nest: When Your Child Leaves for College
Dr. Dale V. Atkins, September 2005
1. What’s happening with the relationship between the parent and the soon to be college student as
he or she prepares to leave?
2. Are they really ready to be on their own?
3. I am not "finished" parenting ... when will I see them and how will they be?
4. What can I anticipate for my child?
5. Will my child succumb to peer pressure?
6. Will my child be safe?
7. Will my child "party" too much?
8. Is this the right school for my child? It helps when parents are happy about the choice of school
for their child (right size and environment). Some aspect of a freshman parent’s anxiety might be
due to the feeling that his or her child may be "lost" at a particularly large school, or one they
deem not quite suited to the child. Or they may wonder if this school is "too affluent" or are the
kids too "materialistically endowed" and will their child find his or her place and stay
well-grounded with the pressures to "party" or fit in with certain trappings. A parent can also
worry about an urban kid who’s going off to a bucolic, remote campus.
9. HOW WILL I MANAGE ???????
• My life and my purpose will be totally different.
• I may have to examine my own relationship more carefully since I don’t have my child to take the
focus off of it.
Colleges in a different environment will be a learning experience:
• The school may be more diverse ethnically and socio-economically than the child’s high school and that is a good and broadening thing ... so there is a balance ... many schools try make their
populations ever more diverse, and this will provide an excellent opportunity for a suburban child
who has not had much experience with people from other parts of the country or world.
• There’s opportunity for the student who hasn’t ventured far from home to experience something
entirely different and learn new things. For example, for the urban student, there’s the chance
that kid will crave the action of the city and his/her old urban crowd, but he’ll be introduced to
something completely different in a rural/suburban setting. The same principal obviously applies to
those northern kids heading south, southerners heading north, easterners heading west etc. Parents
can certainly worry about the possible shock to their kids’ systems, or they can support their kids
in helping them anticipate and enjoy what will be new and different.
Both kids and parents are anticipating the change:
It’s normal to feel sad, anxious, concerned, worried, and / or out of sorts at this time. For 18
years you have been with this child day in and day out. The feelings are very much about
anticipation of such a new experience ... unknown, on their own, unsure yet wanting to be able to
handle it all ... mature enough to handle it yet not quite certain. Loneliness is part of the
process (both for the student and the parent.)
Prior to leaving some soon to be freshman may have pushed the envelope at home, challenging rules,
curfews, and initiating fights ... trying to make the break easier for themselves. Some of these
summers were incredibly strained for some families. For other families the summer before college was
really idyllic. Parents and their soon to be college student children may have enjoyed wonderful
times together, such bonding makes the separation difficult because of the void in the lives of the
parents. Not having the "noise and activity" is deafening. They miss their kids and the closeness,
You’ll always be Mom or Dad but you may have to redefine your role in your child’s life:
The parent-child relationship is about to be altered radically. This is scary and painful to
parents. The parent may not feel like his or her "mommy" anymore, and wonder if they will ever be,
again -- or how will they be? And as far as their identity, who are they without their kids at
home, on a regular basis? Parents may feel the loss of being needed.
Even if you still have a child or two at home, you are no longer "the mother of two" -- the family
is a smaller, potentially lonelier group. This is so tough for many people.
Parents have Mixed Emotions
Sometimes parents can feel jealous of their kids (no secret or surprise here) as they go off to the
schools of their dreams and bright futures. Some parents don’t only wrestle with losing their
children, but perhaps with loss of parents, divorce, job loss, and health issues ... the question is
how to keep them separate and how to "reconcile?" This loss may resurrect previous losses and it
may be too difficult to deal.
Each parent may experience their emotions differently or experience different emotions. They may or
may not be able to have empathy for the other. For one, having the child out of the house may help
their relationship and for the other it may exacerbate difficulties or it may just be too tough…the
sadness too excruciating. It is important that the child going to college not be burdened with the
guilt that he or she is leaving the parent and that the parent will not be able to cope with and in
their absence. A parent’s responsibility is to surround him or herself with loving friends and
family to have a rich and interesting life. Their children are not responsible for their
1. Understand the concept of roots and wings. Give them roots and offer them wings to fly on
2. Connect with your child on a regular basis. Stay in touch via cell phone-mail, e-mail
etc. a few times a week. Be careful not to have too much contact as this is the time or be
intrusive so your child can gain independence and develop a healthy self image apart from his life
at home. Allowing for separation and privacy will help this young adult to become more of an adult
on his or her own. Also listen to what they are experiencing instead of starting off phone
conversations with "20 questions". Give ample time before the first college visit. Send care
packages, cards and letters with news (not just e-mails), plan holidays and ask if they have friends
who may live too far away to go home and ask if they want to bring them to you.
3. Once they leave, be conscious of the different changes you will make in your life.
Interestingly, some kids go to college and their parents are eager to turn their rooms into an
office, a sewing room, a den ... and the kids are adamant about not wanting to "change the bedroom."
Keeping their rooms intact may be necessary so they can be indulged a bit in moments of nostalgia
and affection. They wonder, "Will there still be "my place" when I come home?" But that does not
mean you cannot encourage and help your child sort through his or her belongings before leaving.
Donating some books to a library, magazines to a teen or senior center, clothes to a shelter and
just saying goodbye to some of the 18 years worth of stuff!, It is a struggle. Don’t change the
rooms so fast ... unless you absolutely have to and then only with permission.
4. Use Your Time Wisely. Fill up the time you used to spend with you child or for your child
with things that interest you. This is the time to take up that hobby, start that project you’ve
longed to tackle, begin or change careers. Spend time with friends and loved ones. Reconnect as a
couple again. If you are a single parent, do more things with friends and / or community service to
help with the space in your life. Do the projects you have been unable to do because you were so
busy with the kids.
5. Have Confidence in Your Children. You’ve instilled morals and values and you have to have
confidence that they’ll make the right choices. Sometimes they will and sometimes they won’t which
is all part of learning life’s lessons. Parents roles are changing to be more of a mentor than a
manager. They are still parents!
6. Show interest in their life at college. This is the first time parents won’t know their
kid’s friends. Show an interest in their friends, what they are doing, the classes they are taking,
professors they like, the kind of routine they are into. Send care packages.