Why the College Transition Is a Family Event

It's not just happening to the kids.

Posted Aug 10, 2018

A pivotal event in family life, the college transition is a dual developmental milestone—it affects both parents and their young adult kids. It's happening to the whole system—even the younger kids, taking a lead (or a bedroom) from their independence-seeking sibling, are demanding greater autonomy for themselves. Meanwhile their parents, exhausted from getting the first one this far, may be squabbling more than usual about how best to handle them all, especially the one about to leave.

Late adolescence is the most stressful time in marital life, made even more so by parents reflecting on how successful they've been raising their kids "and waking up in the middle of the night worrying what I forgot to give, teach or show them," as one woman said.

With one foot out the door, many kids act out their fear of leaving by denying their positive attachment to the family and repudiating the support home provides, while parents focus their attention on orchestrating the perfect leave-taking to avoid thinking about the uncertain future—theirs as well as their college-bound kid's. Since the new roles each is about to assume are still unknown, everyone reverts to those they've long since outgrown. The wrong word can spark a conflagration. Minor irritants erupt like poison ivy. Everyone regresses.

"It's like she's spoiling for a fight," says a client who enjoyed a period of relative tranquility with her teenager this spring and summer. In fact, she is: "Spoiling the nest," as Dr. Laura Kastner describes it, is an attempt to ease the pain of departure that's frequently enacted by both generations—parents who've exhausted their store of patience and young adults whose new-found maturity gets shakier as they grow more nervous about the next step. 

Here are some proactive ways to manage their transition anxiety:

  • Listen for areas of specific concern—academic, social, and personal worries—and don't dismiss them with false reassurances and platitudes.
  • Focus, confirm, validate, and empathize with their fears.
  • Remind them of their competencies.
  • Cite prior new experiences they've handled well, and how they've successfully managed other unexpected challenges.
  • Remind them they can ask for help when they need it and can count on  your support. 

And here are some good ways to handle yours:

  • Keep the lines of communication open even when they're being irrational.
  • Avoid reactivity. Breathe deeply and fantasize about the day after they leave, when the house is quiet again and you can hear yourself think.
  • Practice self-care and stress reduction whatever way works best for you—exercise, meditation, distraction, a good scream out the car window or a Netflix binge.
  • Know what resources the college offers and share that information with your student.

The closer you get to Departure Day, the higher the level of anxiety in both generations; it's contagious. Containing your own concern leaves room for them to express theirs. Your worries may be focused on their physical safety and whether they're prepared for as much personal freedom as the college experience offers, while theirs are more concrete: Will they fit in, make friends, like their roommates, manage their time, and perform well academically?

Try to avoid preaching, dwelling on worst case scenarios, and cramming in that last lecture. Instead, listen closely to the concerns they voice, ask them if they want to hear your suggestions, and if they don't, remind them of the resources available to help them cope, including but not limited to you. 

Finally, let them leave their way. Your idea of the perfect send-off may be different from theirs. Check with them before planning parties, family dinners, or other activities related to their departure. Make logistical decisions with them, not for them. And limit your last-minute advice—they won't listen, and if they don't know it by now, they'll have to learn it themselves.

References

Kastner, Laura M., The Launching Years