Why it's so hard when your child leaves for college — and how to cope

Korin Miller
·Writer

Ask any parent what it’s like to have a child leaving for college and you’ll hear about a range of emotions, including sadness, excitement, and fear. But most parents will agree that, above all else, it’s really, really hard.

For the record, it’s “natural and normal” to have mixed emotions about your child leaving, Anthony Rostain, MD, a professor of psychiatry at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania and co-author of The Stressed Years of Their Lives: Helping Your Child Survive and Thrive During Their College Years, tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “You’re going to feel a range of emotions — happiness, excitement, anxiety, sadness, and uncertainty — at different moments,” he says.

“Leaving for college often is the first separation that the parent and child go through,” clinical psychologist John Mayer, PhD, author of Family Fit: Find Your Balance in Life, tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “This is a loss and the same emotions that accompany loss get kicked in.”

Parenting is all about letting go “from the time your kid starts to toddle,” Rostain says, but, while these transitions have been happening the entire time you’ve been a parent, leaving for college is a particularly big one. “People, generally speaking, are aware of transitions as both wonderful and scary,” Rostain says.

If you’re having a hard time with the idea of your child leaving for college, know that you’re not alone, but there are a few things you can do to make it easier on yourself and your child.

For starters, it’s perfectly okay and even recommended to let your child know that you have mixed emotions about the whole thing, Rostain says. Just try to keep it largely positive. That means you can mention that you’re really going to miss them, or that you’re having trouble with the idea of them moving away, “but don’t overdo it,” Mayer says. This is a big change for your child, too, and dwelling too much in the negative can make them feel upset or scared about the change.

It’s also a good idea to focus on what actually needs to be done to prepare your child for school. “Look at where they’re going to room and what they need to take with them,” Rostain says. And, as the date that they’re going to leave gets closer, talk to them about how you’re going to stay in touch and when you’ll see each other next. “Plan these things in advance,” Rostain says.

Of course, your child is going to leave at some point — and that can change things for you, too. “Parents have to think about what’s going to happen in their own lives when the child leaves,” Rostain says. “What are you going to do with the extra time? How are you going to spend this transition period?” Finding new hobbies, planning a trip, or simply investing more time and effort in yourself can go a long way toward making life easier for yourself when they leave, he says.

If you find that you’re struggling with the transition, talk to friends and family about how you’re feeling, Rostain says. And, if that doesn’t help, it doesn’t hurt to check in with a mental health professional about it. “If you’re really unhappy or scared about it, then you have to check in and ask yourself why you’re feeling that way,” Rostain says. “Is it your kid, the school, or something in you that’s not ready? It may simply be a matter of how ready you are as a parent to let go.”

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