What to Do (and Not Do) After They Leave for College

The right and wrong ways to recenter an empty nest

Posted Sep 06, 2018

This is the third in a series of posts about coping with the college transition; I'll be writing more about it next week).

The house is quieter - that's what you notice first.  You mark time by their phone calls, texts and emails, reading between the lines or listening for the silences that tell you they're okay - not too homesick, just enough to let you know they miss the familiar; finding their way around campus; liking—or at least reserving judgment about—the roommate, the dorm, the food, the weather, the ground rules. They've been to orientation and maybe you have, too, and classes are starting - Got to go, Mom, text you later.  Now what?

  • Don't call them, they'll call you. Unless they don't. They need time to settle into their new surroundings and new routines. Insisting on daily contact makes them feel like you're checking up on them, are afraid they can't manage without you, or are telegraphing a  message that you can't manage without them.  
    • This is about them, not you.
    • You'll be notified if something bad happens.
    • If they left something behind they'll ask for it.
    • Not hearing from them usually means they're fine, just occupied with their new life.
    • Send them a surprise care package, including something for the roommate. Pick up their room, close the door, and go to a movie.
  • .     Adapt your communication style to the situation..
    • Keep the news from home coming but don't tell them the dog died, Dad lost his job, or other bad news unless it's something they either have to know right now or can do something about.
    • Don't demand a day by day or hour by hour report on their activities - give them time and room to breathe.
    • Don't guilt-trip them about ignoring your messages or remind them of how much you've sacrificed for them.
    •  Avoid getting over-involved when they float trial balloons or express anticipated actions about changing roommates, classes or advisers, going out (or not) for sports, joining campus groups or activities. If they ask for advice—but only if they ask—suggest they investigate alternatives, talk it over with an adviser or orientation counselor, and wait a week to decide. Let them know it's all right to change their minds; if they don't mention it again, they probably did.
    • Listen to the downside without dismissing it with comments like "It can't be all that bad" or "Why can't you be more positive?"
    • Calm parents make better containers - hold their anxiety, don't place it back on them.
  • Get used to "The Dumps"
    • Just because they're upset, out of sorts, complaining, whining or over-reacting doesn't mean you should. Dump calls are a common occurrence, especially during the first month. As the person closest to them, you'll be the outlet for their stress - it's a dirty job but someone has to do it! Chances are whatever they're tearing their hair about tonight won 't even register by tomorrow.
    • Reaffirm, mirror and empathize with their feelings instead of engaging them on the specific issue.
    • Don't minimize their concerns but don't over-react either. Maintain your perspective - you're probably not getting the whole story.
    • Let them vent without cutting them off. When they've finished, offer support and reassurance.
    • Unless they actively request help, don't problem solve for them.
    • Accept that you won't always give just the right response at the right time - eventually they'll forgive you for it.
    • If you hear the same negative tone or deep distress over time without news of successes, pleasures, new friends, interests or activities, suggest the counseling service, another trusted adult, or a therapist or other professional who's been helpful in the past.

.    Reclaim the rest of your life.

If  only to  distract you from worrying or feeling left behind as they embark on a new life, get back to your own - the one you may have  neglected in the last few frantic months. Find something new to occupy the time they took up - salsa dancing, a book club, maybe going back to school yourself. By sharing your new interests and enthusiasm, you'll also be reassuring your freshman that you're doing okay in his absence.