20100616-moving-college-dorm-1-300x205Several years ago I was leading a panel discussion for parents of incoming college freshmen.  The topic of the moment was “Move-in day.” One of the parents on the panel had just told a heart-wrenching story of leaving her daughter at college and crying all the way back home.  Many in the audience of 400 were dabbing their eyes with Kleenex.  After a long silence, I broke in with the question, “How many of you are like me.  You had a daughter who was a dream for the first 15 years, and then spent her high school years making it real easy for me to say ‘Good-bye’ to her when I took her to college?”  Relieved chuckles rippled through the crowd, a majority of hands went up, heads nodded, and one man near the front gave an audible, “Oh God, yes!”

Those big moments of change never come with just one emotion.  It’s always a mixed bag of sadness, elation, relief, fear, and a host of other thoughts and feelings.  Many parents here in town and throughout the nation have recently left their son or daughter at college. For many students it’s their first time to truly leave home for an extended time. For many parents it’s the biggest “letting go” so far. Now what?

One of the useful ways of thinking about these changes is by thinking about loss and grief.  We often think of grief only in relation to the bereavement following a death, but in fact, life is a series of grief experiences.  Each movement forward in life carries with it the loss of something familiar.  Even those turning points we usually characterize as happy events have mixed within them elements of grief.  Whether it’s leaving home for the very first day of Kindergarten or leaving home years later to go to college, the excitement of what’s ahead is always mingled with the feelings that go with loss.

Each student and each parent will respond to these transitions differently, because each person’s experience is their own unique constellation of thoughts and feelings.  For many of your students, their experiences at the university will contain a workable balance of challenges and supports, and the net result is a good‑enough social, emotional, and academic adjustment to the university.  The same can be said of your adjustment to life without your child at home.

cell+phoneFor other students, however, the challenges will outweigh the supports.  When this happens, the students can feel overwhelmed, lonely, or lost for a while.  This is the time when you as a parent may get a tearful, desperate phone call.  “I hate this place!  I can’t get along with my roommate!  My classes are awful!  I don’t belong here!”  One of my former colleagues confessed that she got that call from her son exactly 35 minutes after she let him off at the dorm.

If that happens, don’t panic.  It may take some time, some listening and talking to determine if the situation is truly desperate or if those are the normal reactions to the loss of the familiar and the anxiety of the not‑yet‑familiar.

It’s important to remember that your young child‑adult is learning a lot these first weeks, and only a small part of that learning is happening in the classroom.  In fact, only a small part of it is happening in their awareness.

They are learning about their abilities and limitations, about managing new responsibilities for all kinds of things in their lives, about community living, values, decision‑making, and all the other things that go with new independence.  These are daunting tasks that only get resolved with time, patience, support, and trial and error.  In some situations, they’ll need help from residence advisors, instructors, academic advisors, or counselors. Parents, make sure they know about these resources, and encourage them to use them.

Every transition, particularly the painful ones, provides an opportunity to learn some valuable lessons and develop some important life skills, for them and for you.  Helping your daughter or son navigate their own way through the tough times allows you to be a part of their lessons.  What do parents need? Patience, a willingness to listen, to hold your tongue, to encourage them to take the actions they need to take on their own behalf, and to point them to the appropriate resources.

They are busy learning lots of new things. As a parent, so are you.