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How to Cope With Your Child Moving Away From Home

Finding the right balance between staying connected and developing independence.

Key points

  • Understanding your attachment style and those of your children will help you stay connected while also helping them establish their independence.
  • Secure parents will fare best, stay connected, and offer encouragement as children explore their new worlds.
  • Don’t let your attachment style choose how frequently you have contact with your child or what the interaction is like.

Letting go is hard to do.

You raised your child for years and probably poured most of your soul and energy into them. And now they are leaving. It is that time of year again when many young people go off to college for the first time. Others move away for a job. Or perhaps they just got married.

These are joyous moments, right?

When my son recently moved away for college, I had expected him to be jubilant in anticipation. Instead, he was glum and seemed downhearted. My wife was very sad, and at times tearful. All I could say to her was, “You did this. You helped build a person who is bright and capable and ready to go out into the world to explore his own life. This is your reward for doing such a good job.” Although it didn’t take the tears away, she did appreciate the sentiment and my positive attitude.

Fast forward to three weeks later and I am missing my son terribly. I wonder, 'Why isn’t he texting or reaching out? Even when I initiate contact by reaching out to him? Maybe I don’t have such a close relationship after all.” For her part, my wife offered, “It’s fine. He’s just off exploring his new life.”

Now we can see firsthand the reverse flow of attachment. For years, our children came to us when they were anxious, hurt, or frightened. We became accustomed to validating them, providing comfort and support, and then encouraging them to go out and try again. Their attachment styles were formed relative to how we responded to them through a myriad of such interactions. As we comforted and soothed their anxieties, we typically felt strong and calm (or at least we tried to pretend).

Now, they have left the nest and are out there in the world. Now it is our turn to feel anxious. We may be the ones who want to reach out for a connection to lower our anxiety. And many parents struggle finding the balance of when to hold on and when to let go, when to reach out and when to sit back and wait. How we cope with this dilemma appears to be attachment-style specific.

Obviously, securely attached parents are going to fare the best. Because they view the world as a safe and predictable place and typically have strong social ties, they are not likely to worry that much about losing connection with their children. They will stay connected and offer encouragement and support as children explore their new worlds. By extension, the children will more readily develop increased confidence and independence (Kenny, 1987). The children may also be more comfortable individuating and establishing their own identities and therefore succeeding in college.

Dismissing/avoidant parents might initially miss their children but then quickly adjust to the new reality. In extreme cases, they may openly celebrate the child leaving so that they can have their own lives back. I have even heard accounts of parents getting rid of their children’s things after they moved out. Once their children move away, they are more likely than parents with other styles to go about their lives, content to wait until their children reach out to them. If the child reaches out with concerns about social issues or hurt feelings, the parent may have little interest. If the child discusses issues with school or competitive sports, however, the parent is likely to be more animated, get very involved, and could even be controlling. Because they are so achievement-oriented, they may reach out to their child frequently to assure the child’s success. This level of involvement is likely to be perceived by the child as self-serving and the parents are not likely to be perceived as very available to provide the type of support that the child feels that he/she needs (Feeney and Thrush, 2010).

Preoccupied/anxiously attached parents are likely to feel sad and experience a sense of loss when their children move away. They are likely to miss the connection they had with their child (even if the relationship was tumultuous). Because they worry about relationships and whether they are loved, the preoccupied parent may struggle more with letting go. They might want the child to reach out more and be reminded of their child’s love and closeness. They are likely to be just as, or more, concerned with their child’s social life as with their performance at school or work. In extreme cases, they may stay overly involved and reach out too frequently. They may need the child to remind them that they are loved and cared for. By extension, they could slow down the child’s ability to explore the world and establish their independent adult identity. Although not specifically about adjustment to college, Feeney and Thrush’s (2010) research with couples shows us that preoccupied individuals may offer less encouragement for exploration, especially if their relationship partners are avoidant (i.e., already highly independent).

Fearfully attached parents are likely to be more unpredictable relative to those with the other styles. Because they have high levels of both anxious and avoidant attachment, they may go back and forth between trying too hard to stay close and totally shutting down and being distant. In more extreme cases, these parents may become hostile and accuse the child of not caring or abandoning them. Alternately, they may totally shut down and discontinue contact. Obviously, this pattern is likely to produce more distress for the child who may struggle with the parents’ emotionality or with feeling alone in the world and cut off with no support. Feeney and Thrush (2010) asserted that those with fearful styles are the least likely to encourage independence and exploration in others.

It should be evident that to make the most of reading this blog post, it will be helpful to know your attachment style. For an easy-to-read explanation of attachment theory, go here. And be sure to read the descriptions of the secure, dismissing, preoccupied, and fearful styles. Understanding your style and how it interacts with those of your children will help you stay connected while also helping them establish the independence and autonomy needed to adjust to life on their own.


  1. Don’t let your attachment style choose how frequently you have contact with your child or what the interaction is like.
  2. Agree on one day and time each week when the parent and child will reach out and “touch base.” Try to connect in person or on the telephone, not with text.
  3. Do not disconnect from your child. Avoid retaliating in kind if your child does not reach out to you as often as you would like.
  4. Give your child enough space and time to figure out their own lives.
  5. Let your child have some failures so that they can learn to face life’s challenges. And then be there for them when they return for comfort, encouragement, and support.


Feeney, B. C., & Thrush, R. L. (2010). Relationship Influences on Exploration in Adulthood: The Characteristics and Function of a Secure Base. Journal of Personality & Social Psychology, 98(1), 57–76.

Sax, L.J. & Wartman, K.L. (2010). Studying the Impact of Parental Involvement on College Student Development: A Review and Agenda for Research. Higher Education: Handbook of Theory and Research 25, 219-254, DOI 10.1007/978-90-481-8598-6_6,

Kenny, M. (1987). The extent and function of parental attachment among first-year college
students. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 16, 17–27.

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