Your Child Left for College … But Also, Not Really

I have never subscribed to the “Little kids, little problems. Big kids, big problems,” line of thinking. It diminishes the backbreaking, exhausting challenges of raising young children, while terrifying parents about what is to come. You mean it gets worse? I do, however, subscribe to the truth that every stage of parenting is challenging in its own way. Fortunately, every stage is also beautiful and rewarding as well, but that’s a post for another day.

If you have kids in college, you may sometimes feel they are taking up more time and brain power than they did when they shared your home. You don’t have to feed them or do their laundry, but because of our virtual umbilical cord, you hear about every bump in the road, each disappointment, and stressful moment. Maybe something doesn’t feel quite real until you share it with your mom. Nine times out of ten, your child ends a text or phone conversation, is distracted by college life and bounces right back. You are left with the burden of worry. You wonder if they made the right choice, if they will be ok today and for the next forty years, and if they are having as much fun as your friends’ kids. You are also spinning your wheels trying to figure out what you can do to fix it. Can you call a professor in college? The answer is no. Is there a care package that will cure all that ails? The answer is no. Should you jump on the next flight? Almost always, the answer is, you guessed it, no. Now, it isn’t a crying baby keeping you up at night. It is the constant worry your older kids are happy and successful. It is exhausting and worse, unproductive.

How can you help your child and yourself?

  1. Set boundaries. You do not have to be available 24/7, and you do not have to answer every text that comes in or drop everything for a call. Space between parent and child is a remarkable, valuable, and very necessary thing. It allows for your child to understand you have a life without them which is ultimately empowering for them, and it gives them a much needed chance to work things out on their own.
  2. Be, rather than do. The phrase, “Sit with them in their pain,” may be overused, but it is great advice. Often, your son or daughter just wants you to know. They are not necessarily looking for you to provide a solution. Show empathy. Allow them the opportunity to see that down days are a part of every life, even college life. Just listen and make sure they know you heard them. If they ask you specific questions, and you have a real, valid opinion, answer them. It is also ok to say, “I’m not sure. I’m sorry. That sounds really hard.”
  3. Do not compare their experience to yours, even if college was “the best four years of your life.” (Lord, I would give anything to get people to stop saying that.) College does not have to be, nor should it be, as that would mean it all goes downhill after 22, the best four years of anyone’s life. We remember the freedom and the good stuff, but think back and recall some of your own challenges in college. They were normal and surmountable then. They are normal and surmountable now. They made you who you are, just as your child’s struggles, big and small, will make them more capable, resilient adults, provided they have the opportunity to face them.
  4. Do not compare their experience to that of their peers, especially if your source of information is social media. Almost everyone has some struggles in college. Likely these are not what you will see on social media. Be honest with your authentic friends, and I can almost guarantee, this will allow them to open up to you. It isn’t that misery loves company, but shared experiences often make us feel less alone.
  5. Finally, rather than fix, normalize. Stress does not always equal anxiety and a sad day or week does not mean your child has depression. Allow them the full range of human emotion without adding the pressure of needing to change what they are feeling in any given moment. Happiness is fleeting. Meaningful lives and experiences lead to fulfillment.

All this being said, as you unfortunately know, college students are experiencing higher rates of mental illness than ever before. While we need to be very aware of warning signs, we also have to acknowledge that our inability to allow our kids to manage any problem on their own is contributing both to the mental health crisis and to an epidemic of failure to launch. Just because we can, doesn’t mean we should.

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Author: Karen Latimer

Dr. Latimer is a Family Physician and Wellness & Parenting Coach. She works with parents who want to feel more confident when helping their children and coaches young adults to help them better navigate college life and transitions. Contact her at drkarenlatimer@gmail.com to learn more. She is the author of two Audible Originals, Take Back the House -- Raising Happy Parents and Worry Less, Parent Better.