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How to Send Your Kid Off to College

Leverage the science of saying goodbye to help your student and yourself.

Key points

  • Zoom In: Observe your inner thoughts and feelings during the transition; get curious and accept whatever you find.
  • Zoom Out: Get a bird’s-eye perspective of this transition relative to the big picture of your life.
  • Learn and Grow: Reflect on the greater purpose this transition can serve. Ask yourself, “What can be learned and gained?”

Life is a series of hellos and goodbyes. Whether we like it or not, learning to navigate transitions well is part of life’s hidden curriculum.

One major transition awaits a certain subset of parents: sending their students off to college. As young people are opening a new chapter, families are closing one. And no matter how thrilled we are for them, this transition can be bittersweet. It can feel like our way of life and our identity tied to it have come to a close. But the term transition carries with it the idea that we are simply moving from one experience to the next, rather than coming to the end. This transition, while sad, can also be an opportunity.

Research reveals three common strategies people use to navigate transitions:

Acceptance (zooming in): letting yourself feel; acknowledging negative emotions that come with the transition.

Detachment (zooming out): taking an objective view of the bigger picture.

Positive Reappraisal (learn and grow): looking on the bright side; reframing the situation by focusing on the positive.

In a study where adults were asked to use each strategy, one at a time, to deal with a sad situation, there were upsides and downsides to each.

The Pros and Cons of Acceptance

Interestingly, acceptance didn’t change emotions; both negative and positive emotions remained the same. However, participants viewed this strategy as the easiest to implement and the one they were most motivated to try.

When to Accept: If you aren’t sure how you feel about the college transition, accepting your emotions might be a good starting point. Get curious about your emotions as a way to understand how you are doing.

When Not to Accept: If your negative emotions are overwhelming your relationships, or your ability to cope, acceptance won’t reduce those emotions.

How to Accept: First, observe your emotional response. Ask yourself uncritically and with a spirit of curiosity: How am I feeling?

The Pros and Cons of Detachment

People often feel better when they deny negative emotions, it works to an extent. Participants who detached reported the greatest drop in negative emotions. Detachment caused a reduction in heart rate and slowed breathing, which calmed the nervous system.

The downside is detachment decreased positive emotions, as well. We can’t pick and choose which emotions to numb, it’s all or nothing.

When to Detach: If you are wracked by negative emotions and can only focus on the downsides of the college transition, compassionate detachment is an effective strategy, too. This is not detachment from your child, but from the outcome of who they are becoming.

When Not to Detach: If your student is really anxious or sad about the college transition, your detachment may feel hurtful. Detachment is linked with reduced empathy and may impair your ability to support your people when they are struggling with their own emotions.

How to Detach: Adopt a third-person perspective. Imagine you’re a fly on the wall watching yourself (and your family) get prepared for the college transition. What would that fly be seeing? What are those people feeling and experiencing?

The Pros and Cons of Positive Reappraisal

Positive reappraisal was the only strategy that increased positive emotions. It also decreased negative emotions, but not as much as detachment did. This strategy brightens our mood, increasing feelings of calm and happiness.

When to Reappraise: If you aren’t overwhelmed by your student’s departure, positive reappraisal takes the edge off negative emotions and increases positive emotions. It’s a good strategy if your students are excited about college and you’re trying to match their level of excitement.

When Not to Reappraise: If your student is very worried about this transition, positive reappraisal may backfire. It doesn’t reduce negative emotions as much as detachment does, but it does reduce compassion. If you aren’t able to see the upside of a situation, this strategy may not help. Participants rated this strategy the least easy to implement of the three.

How to Reappraise: Imagine the college transition goes smoothly for your student. What impact would this have on your student? How will college help them grow as a person? Also, what positive benefits will this transition have for you?

Tying It All Together

If we asked you at college drop-off how you’re doing close up vs. from 50,000 feet above, what would you say? Up close, you might only see the negative emotions associated with loss. Zoomed out, you might feel grateful for the direction your student’s life is headed in.

Both the small and big picture can serve a purpose.

  • When we zoom in, we see the events and stressors and focus on our mood, thoughts, and actions. We can feel the rawness of a moment and learn not to be afraid of what we feel. [Acceptance]
  • From a bird’s eye view, we can see the larger landscape of our lives. We see how this moment is just one link in the string of peaks and valleys, hellos and goodbyes, that give our lives meaning and purpose. [Detachment]
  • Together the small and big picture helps us recognize that our feelings are valid yet survivable, and that our collective experiences (good and bad) often grow us and make our lives richer. [Positive Reappraisal]

References

Rompilla, D. B., Jr., Hittner, E. F., Stephens, J. E., Mauss, I., & Haase, C. M. (2021). Emotion regulation in the face of loss: How detachment, positive reappraisal, and acceptance shape experiences, physiology, and perceptions in late life. Emotion. Advance online publication.

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