Transitions: How Parents Prepare for College

Dread or celebrate? Either way, the time is here; your child is heading off to college. Gulp.

Washington and Lee, campus in Lexington, Virginia
Washington and Lee, campus in Lexington, Virginia

Experts say that mothers have various reactions to that moment of separation. Her ability to embrace or despair often depends on the number of kids still at home, whether her kid has ever been away from home (like at camp or boarding school), how far away the child is going (will she see them before winter break?), and whether she’s a stay at home mom (maybe it’s easier for a working mom? I don’t know). Three moms shared their experiences with me:

Toby Bear, of Virginia, discussed her feelings after the first of her two sons headed for college:

“He was going far away. There was this anticipation of our family going from four to three. We are a very close family, and it was going to impact all of us. I remember how hard it was the first time to say, ‘Table for three.’ I probably was crying when I said it. I cried for two weeks straight, I had no control over it. I guess it was nearing the end of full-time motherhood for me. My advice is don’t hold back, let it out. I had great friends; they got me through it.”

Gloria Silverberg, a school counselor in Maryland, shared the mixed feelings she had when she first said goodbye to her daughter:

“As the mother of two daughters, I thoroughly enjoyed watching each of them grow and develop through all their childhood stages into young women. When my eldest daughter Michelle graduated and left for college, I found myself experiencing mixed feelings of anxiousness and excitement….The second time around, I felt I had this “college thing” down, and that I would separate easily. James Madison University held Freshman Orientation including a big parent send off. I found myself holding onto another mom’s hand I had never met before; we both shed a few tears. I was flooded with sadness…leaving my “baby” behind…After we left, a few minutes later, Michelle’s cell phone was ringing. It was Nikki {my daughter} excitedly saying she was off to dinner with her dorm mates. I breathed a sigh of relief knowing Nikki was going to be fine, and hopefully, so was I.”

Gettsyburg College campus
Gettsyburg College campus

Tobi Rosen, also of Virginia, described what it was like for her as her first child prepared to leave for college:

“There were many transitions going on in our house. Senior year, they are physically removing themselves from you, separating, consumed with their friends. You feel a sense of loss with the first child. Realizing a time in life has past…I felt it most at fall break, when he came back. It was clear, he really was gone. He was so excited to go back to his friends, his new life; a life that didn’t really include us. It’s a profound change.”

Fathers have those same feelings, and although some won’t shed tears openly, they are just as pained. Tim Hopkins, a high school counselor in Virginia comments on his observations: 

“I often see separation anxiety in both parents. You see it in the decisions families make about schools. In September, all our students want to go to California, but by April they’ve decided on a college two to four hours driving distance from home. The amount of anxiety varies with the number of children in the household too. The parents of multiple children think, we are going to miss you, but life isn’t going to change that much. It’s more extreme for parents becoming empty nesters. It’s hard to cut the cord for some parents.”

The National Association for College Admissions Counseling (NACAC) website offers a variety of resources to help you cope. David Hawkins, a policy expert for NACAC, says he likes to refer families to the bestseller: “Off to College, Enter Here: The Changing Parent/Child Relationship,” written by mother/daughter team, Woodacre and Bane. Here are some of their tips for coping with this difficult time:

  1. Before they go, plan meaningful time together, like a family vacation; but share your child with his friends too.
  2. At send-off anticipate emotions of anxiety and fear of the unknown.
  3. Set a time to talk weekly to catch up with each other
  4. Be sensitive to signals of severe homesickness and get help through the proper college channels.
  5. Allow for a healthy show of independence. This is the first time they are solely responsible for themselves and their education.
  6. Visit a website written by Margo E. Bane Woodacre and Steffany Bane, who prepared helpful tips for adjusting to college.

It’s not too late to find some important dorm room comforts. Here’s a list:

  1. Headphones to block out ambient noise
  2. Cellphone pocket in backpack for long campus walks
  3. Mini refrigerators to store drinks, food
  4. Crocs or water proof shoes for the bathroom
  5. Large, soft rugs
  6. Feather mattress cover to improve the dorm room beds
  7. Closet accessories such as over the door racks, belt and tie holders
  8. Filing space to stay organized
  9. Full length mirror
  10. Halogen lamp for studying

    The library at Tufts University, Boston

“Even today I’m not sure what worked and what didn’t, what was me and
what was simply life. When they were very small, I suppose I thought
someday they would become who they were because of what I’d done. Now
I suspect they simply grew into their true selves because they demanded in a thousand ways that I back off and let them be.”  Anna Quindlen, Author, on Motherhood


**A version of my “Transitions” story originally appeared in the August 2007 issue of Northern Virginia Magazine

Food for Thought Parenting

Travel and Dish View All →

Freelance writer and photographer specializing in vivid, deeply reported stories about food, travel and family.

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