Parental Separation Anxiety: Tips on How to Cope with Sending a Child Off to College

by May 29, 2009

While some fathers and mothers fear the experience of sending their child off to college will be a traumatic one, it doesn’t have to be, said Mark Thompson, director of Colgate University’s Counseling & Psychological Services and father of a current college student. “There are definitely healthy ways for today’s involved parents to stay connected with their sons and daughters, and maintain their distance — and sanity — at the same time,” he said.

Thompson offered his own advice for parents feeling anxious about sending a future undergraduate off to school:

*Be realistic about frequency of contact. It may have been the norm for you and your child to talk constantly during high school, but all bets are off once that first semester begins, said Thompson. Answer e-mails and phone messages promptly, but don’t push it; a constant stream of encouraging communiqués, though well-meaning, can sometimes actually hinder a student’s personal development. “Ask yourself what your child ultimately wants to be. Independent? Self-reliant? Self-sufficient? You can help her be those things without calling her ten times a day.”

*Remember that the road will be bumpy. Many students go through bouts of homesickness after suffering a major setback at college, so keep in mind that you might only hear from your son or daughter at points of extreme distress, said Thompson. “Your gut will probably tell you to try and save him somehow, but you need to encourage him to solve his problems by himself. Real growth happens at these types of moments, though they may be heart-wrenching for you as a parent.”

*Educate yourself about your child’s experience. When you’re feeling particularly lonely for your son or daughter, take a minute and surf the website of the school’s newspaper (Colgate’s Maroon News, for example, can be found at, said Thompson. You’ll feel better knowing what’s happening on campus, and you’ll have fodder for future conversations with your college student, he explained.

*Do something productive. “For parents who are really struggling with the absence of a child, work at turning your negative energy into something positive,” Thompson suggested. “Put together a care package or write a thoughtful letter. Your son or daughter will be happy with the gift, and you’ll feel like a million bucks for doing something nice for your child.”

*Negotiate school breaks well ahead of time. It always pays to have something to look forward to, said Thompson, and knowing when a son or daughter will return for vacation and how long they’ll be home — particularly for children of divorced parents — is no exception. “Work out a schedule with them beforehand, and actually mark off the days on the calendar,” he said. “It will help the days pass faster.”

*Identify the issues causing concern and raise them with your child. If you are worried about issues related to alcohol or other substance use, financial responsibility, making good choices about sleep, nutrition, or class attendance, let your child know about your concern and talk about the issue. Although peer pressure/influence certainly plays a role in the decision-making for most college students, so does the influence of parents. Rather than holding your concerns in, consider sharing them with your child. You just might feel relieved at their response.

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