10 Uncomfortable Truths You Learn When Your Kid Leaves for College

Carol Katarsky Updated on July 26, 2021

The countdown to college is ticking down and fast. Soon, you’ll be waving goodbye to your kid 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 kid and realized those chubby cheeks weren’t so chubby anymore. Overnight, the “baby” disappeared. Your 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.

Next thing you knew, you were scheduling the SATs, 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 student's senior year, you probably had this thought: Everything is going to change soon. There's no going back.

See also: How and When To Talk About Hazing and Dangerous Partying

2. You're not the CEO of their life anymore

You’ve been through family transitions before. Gradually, your hands-on role transitioned into more of a supervisory one. You stopped cutting food and started showing them how to use a knife. Instead of giving baths, you told them to take a shower. 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 student may make important decisions without you. You may feel left out of the loop.

If you find that letting go of managing all the details is hard, remember that it’s good for your student 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.

See also: What To Do Now to Prep Your Student for College in the Fall

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 guilt. Some parents and guardians wonder if they’ve 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 kid who just left for school.

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

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 person who’s not there.

However, knowing that …

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

Of course, you’ll miss your kid. But you won’t miss tripping over the backpack that’s always 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 the wet clothes they've left there since the day before. 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 kid to come home after a night out? Believe it or not, they’re over. Sure, they're  probably still going out at college. (Ok, they're definitely going out.) But since you won’t know details, you won’t spend your evening worrying about it.

That’s assuming you don't stalk them 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 their 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 you recognize in yourself. You probably also see some things that remind of other relatives.

But then there are those other parts. Just … your kid.

Those magical traits that are solely your kid's are the ones that can create the most tension for you. Maybe you’re terrified of public speaking but they want to be a theater major. Maybe you’re just hopeless at math, but they have a passion for engineering. Maybe you’ve seen the “glass ceiling” in the workplace, so you worry about your daughter going into a male-dominated field.

Give your kid room to make a go at things that would make you quake in your boots. Remember, they’re growing up in a different time and with a different view of 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.

See also: We Rank Your Best Parent Loan Options: Are Parent PLUS Loans a Good Deal?

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.

More likely, there are going to be 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 relationship 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.

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

Assume your kid 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.

See also: How To Help Your Student with Burnout, Depression, or Anxiety

8. You may need to be reintroduced to your significant other (or find one)

Raising a teenager consumes a lot of time and emotional energy. If you live with a spouse or significant other, you may find 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. 

If you're single now (happily or otherwise), you may discover that you have the time and emotional space to add a new relationship. Or you may revel in your new, boundless "me time." 

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.

See also: Letter to Your Child Leaving for College: Some Ideas to Get Started

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

Without the daily grind of keeping your kid'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 in full-time kid management mode.

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. You can’t recapture the past, but those memories may provide the seeds of inspiration for new pursuits.

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. The goal: to reassure yourself you’re not alone.

Don’t be afraid to talk to a doctor or therapist if you find 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 students 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.

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

See also: Options for Paying for Off-Campus Housing

Give yourself some credit

Raising a kid 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 did the best you could.

Just remember this: If your student 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 them 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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