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My Child is Off to College, and I’m not Coping Well

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By Ashley Schmutzer, MA, LPC

staff_ashleyFor many parents, this time of year signifies a huge change in their family dynamics, as they have a young adult that is heading off to college. While this can be a very exciting time, it can also feel overwhelming to the parents as they try to figure out what their role is now in their child’s life, and what to do with the loss that they feel.

While it is expected that our young adults head out the door at 18, it can feel as if there has been an enormous loss in the family. This is a very normal and understandable response. As parents, we have poured so much into our child; they are a part of us. It may feel as if we are losing something of ourselves that will never be the same again. In addition, we may feel many regrets for what we didn’t do while they still lived in our homes 24/7. Did they learn enough responsibility? Do they know how loved they are? Will they make the wisest choices? Will they be SAFE?

First of all, some depression is normal. It is a loss in our family, even if it is a new and exciting time for our child. It’s all right to call it a loss, and lean into the pain of that loss for a time. There is healthiness in acknowledging exactly what has happened, “I have just sent someone off to college that I have poured an enormous amount of myself into.” Eighteen years is a long time to be dedicated to a person; you will feel a gaping hole for a period of time. As you get used to this new time of life, tears and sadness are understandable. This is a good time to go out with friends, especially those who are going through the same thing. It’s also a good time to begin doing something that builds into yourself, such as an exercise program, a hobby, volunteering. Keep a journal and write out how you’re dealing with this. However, be careful not to just become “busy.” It is important to face the new dynamics you are dealing with and not just ignoring it, but also all right to spend some of that “sad” time building into yourself. If, after several months you find yourself still sad and unable to rise above it, this may be a time to come in and talk with a counselor and see if there is something a little deeper going on. But sadness and even depression, for a time, is very common.

Second, do not underestimate all that you DID do while your child was in your home. You loved him/her, provided safety and security, taught him/her in ways you will never know, just by your actions day in and day out. So many of the tools you didn’t even know you gave your children will come to the forefront now when they need them. Most likely, they are not helpless or unsafe at all—but quite prepared thanks to how you have trained them. And in many ways, you may have no idea you were doing just that. Now will be the time to trust that you did do many things right, and were a “good enough” parent. Meaning, it wasn’t always perfect, but it was good enough, and many times exactly what they needed.

Third, temper any desire to be a helicopter parent and be there for every little thing that your college student encounters. They are meant to work through issues on their own and to struggle a little bit. Encourage them to make decisions, and applaud their abilities. This is how they will learn, and you may be surprised at how well they do. But you also know your child better than anyone, and there will still be times when he/she just needs to see you on Skype or hear your voice or receive a text. They still need to know you are there for them, even as they grow through these years away at college. It is a great comfort for a college student to know home is always there waiting, and is a safe place, while they step out and fly using their own wings.

Need some assistance around this major life transition? Give us a call at Stenzel Clinical Services, and we’ll be happy to help. We have trained counselors ready to assist you with all of the experiences and emotions you may be coping with as your child heads off to school.