10 Uncomfortable Truths You Learn When Your Child Leaves for College

Carol Katarsky Updated on April 13, 2021

The countdown to college is ticking down, and fast. Soon, you’ll be waving goodbye to your child as they head off to begin the long-awaited college experience.

At the same time your new college freshman is embarking on a new phase of their life, you’ll be doing the same. Even if you won’t be an empty nester come the fall, you’ll have one less person in your home. There will be a period of adjustment. Some of it will be welcome. (One less glass left on the counter every night!) And yes, some of it might be hard.

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It’s time to start doing some emotional preparation. Here are some things you may realize as you move through the next few months.

1. The time did go fast

The baby and toddler years seemed like they’d last forever. You couldn’t imagine a day when you wouldn’t be packing a diaper bag before leaving the house. And then one day … boom! You looked at your child and realized those chubby cheeks weren’t so chubby anymore. Overnight, all the “baby” disappeared. Your little toddler transitioned into a child right under your nose. That was the first time you realized the truth of what older folks had been telling you: Time really does fly.

The elementary school years were a completely different universe. Homework, field days, holiday celebrations … the years took on a predictable cadence. But then came middle school and suddenly everything was different. The tween and early teen years were full of newness and confusion and indecipherable mood swings and then poof! Those “awkward years” were over far more quickly than they’d begun.

High school. You knew it was going to go fast, but there were still so many milestones between your child and adulthood. So many “firsts.” First jobs, first time driving, first loves and first heartbreaks for some, first plans for their futures.

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Next thing you knew, you were scheduling the SATs and filling out the FAFSA and visiting colleges. Conversations turned to scholarships, GPAs, applications, and acceptance letters. Then, suddenly, you were sending in the deposit for a cap and gown.

Somewhere in all the hustle and bustle of your child's senior year, you probably had this thought: Everything is going to change soon. There's no going back.

2. You're not the CEO of your child's life anymore

You’ve been through transitions in parenting before. At some point, hands-on parenting transitioned into supervisory parenting. Instead of giving baths, you told your child to take a shower. You stopped cutting food and started showing them how to use a knife. You set rules, drove carpools, and managed doctor’s appointments. You made sure all the important things got done.

After having so much responsibility and control, you may feel like you've been demoted when college starts. Instead of calling the shots, you’ve been relegated to an adviser (at best). Your child may make important decisions without you. You may feel left out of the loop.

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If you find that letting go of managing all the details is hard, remember that it’s good for your child to exert some independence. Yes, they’ll make mistakes, just like you probably did. Mistakes are normal and, actually, beneficial

Also? Letting go of the daily grind of active parenting means that you may actually have some more time in your own day. What a concept.

3. You may become closer with your other kids — and you may feel bad about it

With extra time and space, you may discover that you have a whole new relationship with your other kids. While that can be fantastic, this perk sometimes comes with a side dish of parental guilt. Some parents wonder if they’d been neglecting their other kids all along, or they may feel bad that they didn’t invest the same amount of “quality time” in the child who just left for school.

If you end up feeling bad about becoming closer with your other children, try to go easy on yourself. Most parents are sincerely doing the best they can with the time and resources that are available.

See also: What is the Cheapest Way to Get a Bachelor's Degree?

Remember that adding or subtracting a person to a household changes the dynamic. One less person in your environment naturally gives the remaining people more time and space to connect with each other, but it’s not out of a lack of love for the child who’s not there.

However, knowing that …

4. You’ll probably feel guilty for not missing them more

Of course, you’ll miss your child. But you won’t miss tripping over the backpack that’s constantly dumped by the front door. You won’t miss constantly wiping up spills inside the fridge (why can’t they take the juice OUT before they pour it)? You won’t miss having to plan dinner menus around the one person who doesn’t like pasta and you won't miss lugging a load of laundry to the washer only to find your child's wet clothes that have been in there for the past 36 hours.

Your load may be lighter in some ways. It might be … nice. It's OK to enjoy it. 

5. You will stop worrying (eventually)

All those nights you stayed up way too late, waiting for your child to come home after a night out? Believe it or not, they’re over. Sure, your child is probably still going out at college. But since you won’t know about it, you won’t spend your evening worrying about it.

However, that’s assuming you don't stalk your child on social media to see where they are. Seriously, resist this urge. We were all young once, right? Unless you have a reason to fear for your child’s health or safety, give them the space and the privacy to escape your watchful eye.

While you're at it? Turn off location tracking if you can't keep from looking. Sometimes it's best not to know.

6. They’re going to make very different choices than you did

You probably look at your child and see traits that you recognize in yourself. You probably also see some things that remind you of their other parent.

But then there are those other parts. Not from mom. Not from dad. Just … your kid.

Those magical things traits that are solely your child’s are the ones that may bring up the most tension for you. Maybe you’re terrified of public speaking but your son wants to be a theater major. Maybe you’re just hopeless at math, but your child wants to be an engineer. Maybe you’ve seen the “glass ceiling” in the workplace, so you don’t want your daughter to go into a male-dominated field.

See also: Which HBCUs Offer Online Degrees? 12 Options to Consider

Give your kids room to make a go at things that would make you quake in your boots. Remember, they’re growing up in a different time, with a different view on the world. They still have thoughts, feelings, and talents that may not have emerged yet. 

Let them take chances. Don’t chip away at their bravery by trying to protect them from things that scare you.

7. They’re going to struggle

Best-case scenario: Your child goes off to college, makes a pack of excellent friends right away, sails through their classes, and chooses a major that plays to their strengths and leads to an excellent job someday.

It could happen.

But more likely, there are going to be some bumps along the way. Maybe it takes a while for them to find people they click with. Maybe they realize they don’t like their major or they have trouble keeping up with their studies. Maybe they have boyfriend or girlfriend drama, and you have to fight the urge to look up the offending party on social media and give them a piece of your mind.

But you can’t save them anymore. And you shouldn’t try. We all know this, right? Unfortunately, it can be hard to remember when we see our loved ones having a hard time.

See also: Congratulations, Class of 2020! You Just Got An Advanced Degree in Resiliency

Overcoming struggle is a necessary lesson in launching into adulthood. Think of all the obstacles you have faced in your own life. How many of them turned out to be valuable learning experiences? How many forced you to call on strength or ingenuity you didn’t know you had?

Assume your child will go through some rough patches, too. When they do, listen with love and remind them that facing adversity is how we learn what we’re made of.

8. You may need to be reintroduced to your significant other

Parenting a teenager takes a lot time and consumes a lot of emotional energy. If you live with a spouse or significant other, you may find that your relationship changes as you adjust to life with one less person in the house — especially if you’re empty nesters.

It’s not unusual for couples to discover they have to essentially get to know each other all over again. For some couples, it can be awkward. For some, it’s a time of joyful rediscovery.

See also: 6 Ways to Pay for College Under the 'New Normal'

Whatever your situation, know that it may take some time to figure out your “new normal.” Have patience. Communicate. Seek counseling if you think you need to. And maybe check out this article about how to deal with marriage complications related to empty nest syndrome.

9. 'Finding yourself' after the empty nest may be hard

Without the daily grind of keeping your child’s life running, you may find yourself with more time than you’re used to. At first, this might feel less like relief and more like a void.

Maybe you’ve forgotten how to relax. Maybe you can’t name a single hobby you’re interested in starting. Maybe you have no idea how to define yourself if you’re not a full-time parent.

Accept that it may take some time to clarify your life purpose and remind yourself that periods of transition are often uncomfortable. If you can, try to embrace this new period as a time of self-discovery. Instead of focusing on loss, try to focus on possibilities.

One idea that can help: Look back on photos or journals from your younger days and try to remember what that person was hopeful and excited about. While you can’t recapture the past, those memories may provide the seeds of inspiration for new pursuits.

See also: 8 Reasons Why Online Education is Better than Traditional

If you’re sad, know that these feelings are normal and there’s nothing wrong with you for having them. Seek support from friends, family, and even social media groups of people who are going through the same thing. Read articles about other people who have dealt with empty nest syndrome to assure yourself that you’re not alone.

Don’t be afraid to talk to a doctor or therapist if you find that you’re unable to rebound after a few weeks, or if you suspect that you might be in danger of hurting yourself or someone else.

10. They'll change while you're not looking

Teenagers and young adults are nothing if not surprising. However, college is a time when many kids take the opportunity to try out different looks, viewpoints, and interests.

When they lived in your house, you could watch these things evolve over time. Now that they’re not under your roof, these changes may come as more of a surprise.

See also: Options for Paying for Off-Campus Housing

Brace yourself for the idea that your child may come home as a slightly different person than the one you dropped off at school. Remember that one of the key points of college is to learn and grow. Not all changes will be permanent, but allowing your child space to get to know themselves will help ensure that they’re happier adults.

Give yourself some credit

Parenting is one of the biggest challenges many people face. So many parents are hard on themselves about making “wrong” decisions, being too hard on their children, or not being hard enough. Did you make some mistakes? Of course you did. No one is a flawless parent. But you probably did the best you could.

Just remember this: If your child is heading off to college, you must have done a few things right these last 18 or so years. Parenting is never really over, but you got your child this far. So cheers to you, moms, dads, and all those who filled those shoes along the way. You did it! 

About the Author
Carol Katarsky

Carol Katarsky is a contributing writer for Nitro. She is an award-winning journalist with extensive experience writing about both finance and education. Her corporate and non-profit clients include AIG, Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, and the Project Management Institute. She lives in Philadelphia with her husband, son, and one cat more than she should. Read more by Carol Katarsky

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