Letting go: Tips for parents sending kids to college

Preparing everyone for life beyond high school can make the transition much easier.

All photos by Tracy Trautner, MSU Extension
All photos by Tracy Trautner, MSU Extension

As a child gets older, it may seem like forever before they will be leaving for college. It is so true when they say “time flies when you are having fun” changing diapers, doing homework, traveling to sporting events and packing lunches. When you think about it, there are only 936 Saturdays from when a child is born until they turn 18 years old, which doesn’t seem very long at all. Before you know it, young babies are out on their own adventures, equipped with all the good judgement, morals and fine-tuned decision-making skills needed to be able to navigate a complex world. Right?

As parents, we can be doubtful, but try to remain confident that the foundation you have built over the past 18 years will accompany your child across the miles and throughout the years. As they prepare for college, there will be great excitement on their part and they will be pulled between the past, present and future. This is a very ambivalent time in a child’s life as one minute they are asserting their independence and saying “leave me alone” and the next wanting to spend lots of time with you. It really is an emotional roller coaster for everyone involved.

Some things to remember as they prepare for their new journey:

  • Don’t tell your child, “These will be the best days of your life.” When your child is homesick or overwhelmed by exams or life in general, it is not reassuring to have parents imply this is as good as it gets.
  • Be ready to not see your child very much over the summer before they leave. They will likely prefer to be with their friends. Allow them that extra time.
  • Try to enjoy their senior year without too much focus on their inevitable future departure. Enjoy the senior year festivities with them as much as they will let you. Make memories over the summer that they won’t forget when they are miles away. Giving them extra time on the sports field if it is their last high school game, additional time with friends and allowing them more freedom will all go a long way in finalizing one chapter in their life to be able to begin the next.
  • Decide between you and your child who will pay for what. Will your child be expected to pay for books, clothing, extra food or extracurricular activities, or will they get an allowance for those types of things? Do this in advance of leaving for college.
  • Communication is always an issue. As a parent, you will get the call when your child needs reassurance that everything will be OK and their friends will get the phone calls with the exciting news. Be ready to encourage them to use campus resources with the issue they might be having. During a campus visit or orientation, make a special note of the contact information of certain departments your child might need to access, such as the career center, academic advisor, counselor, health services, public safety and more.
    • (I was not prepared when my son became sick and needed a prescription filled from the local pharmacy. In retrospect, I should have contacted a pharmacy before his first day on campus and provided them with all of my insurance information and other details so he could easily get a prescription filled. When he is sick and feeling horrible is not the time to be making multiple phone calls to get signed up at a pharmacy and get his medication.)

As teenagers leave for college or other adventures, parents need to change their parenting style. While teenagers still need love and support, parents need to become less involved, which is very hard to do. Building an adult relationship with the child and letting them control the timing of interactions (phone calls, emails and visits) will help in maintaining their sense of freedom.

This may be a very exciting time for children, but the sense of loss can be difficult to handle, especially for parents. However, don’t feel guilty if you adjust to your child being in college before other parents do. Each parent makes the adjustment in their own time.

Packed for collegeHow can a parent stay connected without infringing on the child’s new-found freedom? Michigan State University Extension recommends the following suggestions:

  • Communicate via email. It is easy and inexpensive for your teenager to communicate in this way as their schedule allows.
  • Write letters. Everyone enjoys getting mail. Don’t be offended if you don’t get a response.
  • Many colleges’ websites have “parent corners” that contain important information about what is happening at the school.
  • Send small care packages with items such as treats, quarters for laundry and local news clippings.
  • Visit during parent’s weekend. Let your college student dictate how the weekend will look, but this is a great opportunity to spend time with your child on campus when there are other parents doing the same thing with their college student.
  • When your child calls in frustration, remember that they are establishing their individuality, so listen in a non-judgmental way and refrain from giving advice. More than likely they do not need a solution, they simply need a listening ear from a trusting and comforting source.

For many parents who have been devoted to every aspect of their child’s life, including academics, sports, the arts and hobbies, they now have to inevitably assert less control over their kids’ day-to-day lives. Letting go can be very difficult. The way to reduce emotional toll is for parents to accept this new time of transition and learn how to balance the amount of contact they have with their children.

Many parents fear they did not prepare their child for life beyond high school. Similar when they sent their child to preschool or kindergarten for the first day of school, they soon realize the preschool teacher, who deals with 3-to-5-year-olds all the time, will know what to do. College faculty, staff and residence hall personnel are trained and equipped to help the college student who may be struggling, veering off track or looking to get more involved in sports and other social activities. Or, in some cases, help parents who can’t quite let go.

Parenthood has 2 big transitions, when our children arrive and 936 weeks later when they leave. Our job as parents is to leave them with a sense that they will be well-equipped for this independent stage of life. Put your need to be needed second and remember this is their moment. You might know better and would love to give very valuable input during this time, but it doesn’t have to be done perfectly. They will learn from their mistakes and appreciate unconditional support from you from a distance. It is certainly not easy to let them go.

To learn about the positive impact children and families experience due to MSU Extension programs, read our 2016 impact report: “Preparing young children for success” and “Preparing the future generation for success.” Additional impact reports, highlighting even more ways Michigan 4-H and MSU Extension positively impacted individuals and communities in 2016, can be downloaded from the Michigan 4-H website.

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