As a parent I knew that one day our son (who is an only child) would become an adult and leave home. But as prepared as I thought I was to manage that transition, in truth I wasn’t prepared at all. I think this was the result of naivete’ as well as lack of knowledge and experience. None of our close friends had been through this yet (we were all going through it at the same time) nor had anyone older shared words of wisdom with us about this phase of life. Strangely, even my social media feeds seemed to lack mention of college parents grieving when their kids left for college….only the occasional mention of missing them or how good it felt to have them home for holidays and vacations. So, when the day came for me to drive our son to college, I was aware that our lives were about to shift but I had no idea how much.
Now, of course, everyone experiences adjustment, change, loss, and rites of passage differently. There are many parents who get through this experience with their hearts intact and even thrive as empty nesters in those initial first few months. I had envisioned myself as being in the latter group— I had, afterall, spent 18 years encouraging my son to live life, explore, and make memories. I was excited for him to be heading to college…to be leaving our small town and moving to a place where academia, diversity, and opportunity are embraced and celebrated. I could feel his readiness to foster this new life. I was overjoyed for him.
But as some parents do, I was so focused on him having a positive transition to this phase of life that I kind of forgot to prepare myself. You’d think, as a counselor, I would have been better prepared. I wasn’t.
On the day I drove him to college it was a beautiful day. Ideally beautiful. We listened to his music all the way there and I soaked in every second of sharing this time with him. We stopped to have Thai food before heading to campus.
When we got to campus we followed lines of directed traffic that eventually led to his dorm. There were student volunteers to help unload the car and take my son’s belongings to his room. I then parked the empty car in a nearby lot and walked back to his dorm room to help unpack what I could.
And then, it was time to leave.
I gave my son a big hug, told him to enjoy this—all of this— and said the usual mom things…I love him; to be safe; that his dad and I are proud of him; that we are always there for him and just a text away.
And then I left.
I walked back to the car and tears started to flow. That seemed expected. But the tears wouldn’t stop flowing. That was not expected. Ugh— I loathe crying. I really do. I know its healthy and cleansing and that our bodies need to do what they do— but still, I loathe it. I’m also the ultimate “ugly crier” who cannot hide the fact I’ve been crying. My eyes instantly swell to three times their size, creating bags upon bags; my face becomes so blotchy it lasts for hours, long after the tears stop. So imagine my face after an hour of crying…then three hours of crying…a full day of crying…2 days of crying…and still more tears on the third day. I was a complete and utter mess. I had moments of panic and irrational fear. It took days for these feelings to subside and eventually calm. Still, even then, I felt emotionally gutted.
One beacon of light in all of this is that my husband was understanding, supportive, and not afraid of my constantly flowing tears. He was grieving also. He got it. We both missed our son. We were both untethered from our parenting roles for the first time and it was disorienting and heart-wrenching.
Another beacon of light included a few unexpected conversations with neighbors and colleagues who shared their own experiences of grief when their children left home. These small, intimate conversations were validating and made me remember that life is beautiful, in all of its bitter-sweetness.
The best beacon of light, however, was realizing that, like any adjustment, a new normal settles in. Things do get easier. Joy and resolution return.
We did get through it— slowly but surely. For us it took a lot of Netflix, calming teas, extra walks with the dogs, and checking in with one another. Now, as a parent who has survived the experience (as you will also) I want to share some helpful things I learned in the process in case it’s helpful for any others about to go through the same transition.
*** Some of these tips may also be helpful for adult children “leaving the nest” for the armed forces, traveling abroad for a semester, a new job, leaving home in general, etc.
2-3 months before your child heads to college and/or leaves home
Moving Day and Beyond
A new school year is about to begin. For those of you who send your kids to private or public schools, this means your child has a multitude of changes to adjust to in the coming weeks. Some children and teens do well with changes and even look forward to them. For some, however, each and every change can trigger a sense of unease and even anxiety. Let’s look at some strategies to reduce the stressors that can come with adjusting to change (even the happy changes).
New sleep/wake schedule:
If your child is the type that stays up later in the evening and/or sleeps later in the morning during summer, then you may want to plan ahead (about 2-3 weeks before school starts) by sending them to bed a little bit earlier each night and also waking them slightly earlier each morning.
Why? By preparing your child to go to bed and wake earlier for school, before the school year starts, you are reducing the fatigue that happens when sleep routines are adjusted and altered too quickly. Fatigue adds to stress levels, and a tired brain and body is less able to take in all the instruction and complexities of paying attention. On the contrary, when your child has a good sleep routine and is better rested, she’s better able to keep up with the demands of the school day.
Transportation to and from school:
If you drive your child to school every day, and the route has not changed, then your child is likely well prepared for the drive to school. However, if you have not driven that route in a while, it might help to do so before the first day of school just to be prepared for any detours or changes ahead of time. If you have an anxiety-prone child the "practice drive" does 2 things: 1) re-familiarizes the child with the drive to and from school--this creates a sense of normalcy and routine 2) on the off chance that something drastic changed along that route, you will have time to discuss it and/or address any challenges ahead of time.
If your child has a new bus route:
Other helpful suggestions:
New school, classroom, and/or teacher:
In general, a regular routine during the school year can help reduce anxiety for kids overall. A regular routine means a routine that is predictable for your child, i.e. the child knows dinner is at 6pm each night and bedtime is at 8pm. If you’re the type of person who hates routine (I’m one of them) this can feel challenging and even counter-intuitive. However, for kids who are susceptible to anxiety, the routine is a predictable backbone of their day. The routine becomes structure that helps them manage the rest of the day’s craziness. Everything else may feel chaotic to them but they know, if nothing else, dinner is at 6pm and bedtime is at 8pm.
Last, your child is heading back to school with kids they haven't seen in a while, or haven't met before. Remind your child that sometimes kids return to school with a different appearance and/or new life experiences under their belt-- this can be anything from noticeable changes ( i.e. a radically different hairstyle) to ones the child cannot necessarily "see" (i.e. the child has experienced a tragic loss over the summer). Encourage your child to treat him or herself with kindness and to extend that kindness to others as well for a smoother start the school year.
Bonnie Thomas, LCSW
Indigo North Counseling