When your student leaves for college

What to expect when the nest empties out

Whether you were counting down the days or biting your nails in dread, it impacts a family when your child leaves for college—when they become less a “child” and more of a “student.” This changes the day-to-day of your life; it changes the relationships between family members still living together; it may even change the way you see yourself.

When your student leaves for college, there’s one less person in the home whose daily needs and schedule intersects with your own. You may find you’re buying fewer groceries or going to the store less frequently. You may discover that you no longer see the parents of your student’s friends at sports games, school/community activities, or chance encounters. Your daily schedule changes as a result, and maybe you finally have the free time you’ve been craving for almost two decades. And maybe it feels less sweet in real life than it did in your daydreams. As big an adjustment as it is for your student to go to college, it’s also an adjustment for you.

Each of us plays a role in our family, and when one member leaves, it throws the family out of balance. Remaining family members will look for new ways to restore balance to the system to meet their needs. This looks different in every family. Maybe the remaining sibling becomes more social, or more withdrawn. Maybe a parent begins working extra hours to fill their need for a sense of achievement. Maybe issues between parents that have gone unaddressed for years rise to the surface. You may predict some of the ways that your family changes when your student leaves for college, and other changes may come as a surprise. Still, you can count on some kind of change.

You may even notice a shift in how you see yourself. Maybe your student is the first college student in your family, and while you’ve likely been proud of them all along, this is a big achievement, and you helped them get there. Maybe your work never compared in importance to your family, but now you find yourself relying on work for a sense of purpose and community.

What to do about it

As with any adjustment, the only way past it is through it. It can be helpful to keep a few concepts in mind.

Full permission to take care of yourself

Many people see self-care as self-indulgence. But simple practices such as consistent, sufficient sleep, eating healthy meals and snacks, and regular exercise go a long way toward keeping you balanced and ready to handle transitions.

Reconnect with yourself

When your student heads off to college, you might find you have more time to reconnect with hobbies and passions you may have set aside, or interests you didn’t give yourself time to develop, to focus on the monumental task of parenting. Now’s your chance. Get after it!

Take responsibility for your needs

The better you understand your own needs, and how meeting those needs changes as your family changes, the better equipped you’ll be to maintain harmonious relationships with your family and spend more time in a good mood. It can be tempting to blame those around us for our own feelings of irritability, loneliness, boredom, or other discomforts. The sooner we own those feelings as ours, the sooner we can take action to meet the needs that are going unmet and feel better. Additionally, FLC’s Counseling Center offers some great resources for parents on their website. 

Stay connected

Talk to someone—a confidant, spouse, family member, or a professional. Be honest and authentic with those whom you trust. Acknowledge that you’re going through a big transition and share your experience with others. Big transitions often raise big questions: what am I doing with my life? Am I happy in my marriage? What do I want out of the next five, ten years of life? These are hard questions to answer in isolation. But, be careful not to lean too much on your student if they’ve been someone you’ve counted on for support. Look for a balance between authenticity with them, and inadvertently asking them to meet your needs, as this can lead to homesickness, and saddle them with other unnecessary burdens..

Who’s one person you can reach out to right now? Give them a call. And take care of yourself.