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5 Parental Tips for Dealing with College Separation Anxiety

Bob Bessette
Last updated
25 January 2010
college separation anxiety
Winter scene outside my daughter’s dorm

So you’ve just dropped off your child at college for the first time and are feeling the pain.  That final hug was a lot more difficult than you had originally expected.

Your first-born is now among people you do not know, in a completely foreign environment, and you feel the anxiety and feel helpless as a parent.

My eldest daughter left for college for the first time last August.  The trauma of her exodus was detailed in this post.   Ironically, today we just returned from bringing her back to college after her 5-week holiday break at home.  Let’s just say that it was much easier dropping her off this time.

For those of you who have already gone through this college separation anxiety, congratulations on dealing with it and moving onto another phase of your lives.  After having gone through this heart-wrenching experience, I think I can help out my fellow brethren deal with being separated from their child for possibly the first time.  There are certainly ways to deal with anxiety to make this transition easier, for both you, and your child.

1. Communicate, but give them space.

As a parent, it is important to reach a happy medium with your child, in terms of communication, after they are at their college home. Understanding that your child needs space from you is something that every parent must realize.

Your child has been looking forward to this time of independence, so you must honor that independence and limit the correspondence. Let your child dictate how much they want to call, email, or skype with you.  Of utmost importance is to let your child know that you will always be there for them, just as you have been for the previous 18 years of their life.

2. Visit the College Store.

OK, I know that you are paying big tuition bills already, so shelling out any other dough to the school can be tough. But, I am telling you that if you go to the college store and buy a sweatshirt, or a mug for your morning coffee, it will help.  How, you might say?

It helps you feel closer to your child. Each morning when you drink that cup of coffee, with the mug from the college, you will think of your child and will feel a closeness to them.  Every time I wear the shirts I bought at my daughter’s college store or wear the hat that she gave me for Christmas, I feel closer to her.

You might say, doesn’t that make it more difficult and remind you more of the distance between you?  Not for me.  It does just the opposite. You are showing pride in their college and this will reflect not only on you, but also on your child.

If your child knows that you are proud of their college choice, it will help them deal with their own college separation anxiety. Don’t underestimate the simple act of making some purchases at the college store.  Surprisingly, it really helps soothe those pangs of separation anxiety.

3. Attend Parents Weekend.

We attended Parents Weekend at the end of October. It is a very popular time for the college and it allows the parents to attend a class, if desired.  But, more importantly, it’s a time to see your child, possibly for the first time since that emotional departure. And you also get a chance to get to know their roommates.

At the same time, you have a chance to meet with other parents and talk about what it’s like living away from your children. You will quickly learn that almost all parents share this feeling of separation and it is a common thread in conversation.

4. Subscribe to the College Newspaper.

This may sound simple but one of the hardest things for us, as parents, was the not-knowing.  Not being able to know every step our child was taking, or what was happening with her in the college environment.  Subscribing to the college newspaper has allowed us to feel more a part of our daughter’s life by allowing us to read what is going on, at a certain point in time, at the college.

The articles are written by the students so it allows us to hear what their feelings are and what issues they are faced with at the college.  It also helps us when we speak with our daughter because we can talk about the issues that are prevalent at the college.  This small step will help take away some of the feelings of separation and will allow you to feel closer to your child.

5. Visit, if needed, and if possible.

This may be difficult for some parents, especially if your child is across the country, or potentially in another country. About a month into her first college semester, my daughter came down with symptoms that were eerily similar to the H1N1 virus. There were already students at her school that were being quarantined, or separated from the other students, due to the virus.

My daughter was extremely worried that she was coming down with the virus but, more importantly to her, she was concerned that it would affect her schoolwork.  She was worried about falling behind in her classwork and she had just started her college career.  After speaking with her on the phone, my wife drove up there and brought her to the infirmary for tests.

As it turned out, she didn’t have the virus, and was over the symptoms in a few days.  My daughter’s college is about two hours away from our house, in a neighboring state.  So being able to drive to visit her, at the drop of a hat, is convenient. Having my wife there, if only for a few hours, was tremendous for both of them.

It helped my daughter deal with this short-term illness, and it helped us a lot because one of us was able to be there for her.  I can’t stress enough how happy we are that we are only a couple of hours away from my daughter.  My daughter was accepted at colleges halfway across the country but, luckily, she was accepted into her first-choice college, which is within driving distance from our house.  If we couldn’t be with her at that time, the separation anxiety would’ve been extremely tough to deal with.

If you are contemplating dropping your child off at college someday, try to learn from others who have already had to deal with this life transition.  College separation anxiety is tough but there are actionable steps that you can take to minimize the anxiety of being away from your angel.  If you take part in the college experience, albeit remotely, and show your child that you have pride in their college, it will certainly help you deal with the anguish that comes from separation anxiety.

Communicate, but know that this is their time of independence from you. Let them dictate how much they want to keep in touch.  Most importantly, when they do come home on breaks, and in the summer, welcome them home with open arms.

It takes a little time, but those feelings of college separation anxiety will decrease. Implement these various ways to deal with anxiety and, believe me, it will help a lot. It’s really tough at first but, in time, you will be able to emotionally deal with this new phase of your life.

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