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Here is how parents can cope with dropping off their first-year students at college

Alexandra Daha, who studies bioengineering, receives a hug from her parents, Ion and Antoanela, after moving into East Village dormitory on Tuesday, Aug. 30, 2022. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

Antoanela Daha and her husband, Ion, traveled to Boston from Newington, Connecticut, to help their only daughter, Alexandra, a first-year bioengineering student, move into one of the Northeastern University’s dorms. 

When it came time to say goodbye, Daha went to hug her daughter and realized that she couldn’t let Alexandra go, she says. Emotions flooded her.

“I am never like this,” Daha says. “I always said to her, ‘Honey, sky’s the limit. I will not hold on to you.’” 

Throughout Alexandra’s life Daha has been involved in everything her daughter was doing, she says. School, track, cross-country skiing, theater—Daha was at all of the events.

“I was there, and then all of a sudden she won’t need me,” Daha says. “It’s like I am losing my job.”

A child going off to college is usually an ambivalent experience, says Laurie Kramer, professor of applied psychology at Bouvé College of Health Sciences.

On the one hand, it is usually a happy time for families, a time for celebration. Students worked hard for a very long time to be able to go to a college of their choice. Parents, in almost every case, have provided love and support and given their child every opportunity to succeed. Both finally reap a reward for their investment.

On the other hand, this transition is a turning point for a family.

“It can be a huge change for parents to realize that they may not have the same type of influence over their child, the same level of contact,” Kramer says.

Children become emerging adults who, for the first time, are going to be on their own, figuring out who they are apart from their family, what is important to them and what their interests truly are. They learn to be more independent, self-reliant, make their own decisions and form their own relationships, Kramer says.

Parents might experience a range of negative emotions like anxiety, sadness or grief that they need to acknowledge, accept and find ways to cope with.

“Anytime we have such a substantial change in how a family operates, it can be experienced like a loss,” Kramer says. “Crying on the way home makes total sense.” 

Different families will have different experiences with sending their children to college. For some, this may be their first child going to college, for others––their last or the only child.

A family of a first-generation college student might not know what to expect and what their child will be experiencing. In the case of an international student or a student from an underrepresented background, parents might have a lot of fear and apprehension about their child being accepted in their new community, Kramer says.

Adrianna Crossing, school psychologist and assistant professor in the School of Community Health and Behavioral Sciences at Bouvé College of Health Sciences, advises parents to have an open conversation with their child about the changes in their family’s life. 

“Anxiety is a future-focused experience,” Crossing says. “And one thing that we can do to help control that anxiety in advance is to have a plan.”

In an open and transparent conversation, parents can ask how often they can call, whether it is okay to come visit, how they can provide the best support, and whether the child is planning on coming home for holidays. 

“You also open up the opportunity for your kids to share what they might be nervous about and what their needs from their parents are,” Crossing says.

Kramer agrees that children at this new stage of their lives still want their parents to be a safe, reliable, accessible support system.

“It is really helpful when parents can just listen, avoid the impulse to solve a problem for their students, ask them what options they may have to address those types of issues or problems themselves, and provide a lot of encouragement and support and remind them that they are well prepared for this,” Kramer says. 

To cope with the feelings of loss and grief, parents could think of new routines for themselves, Crossing says.

“Routine is very comforting,” she says. “Having a habit and a rhythm to your life can really assist with personal wellness.” 

Putting a positive spin on this experience and reframing it is another healthy way to cope. Think about what you might be gaining, the resources, time and energy that are getting freed up, Crossing says. 

And don’t be afraid to seek support. A friend or a family member might have gone through a similar experience of sending a child off to college or having an empty nest. By speaking to them, parents can validate their feelings as normal and typical, or they might reconnect and make plans to go out to dinner. 

Crossing tells parents to be gentle with themselves if it takes a couple of months to adjust to losing over a decade of routine with their child in the house. However, if they are struggling with intense grief that gets in the way of their day to day activities after four to six months, it might be time to look for professional help.

Some parents might worry that their children might get into trouble being on their own or do things that will hurt them in any way. Crossing says it is normal and human for adolescents to make mistakes, and universal for parents to worry about that.

“Adolescents making mistakes are where adults come from,” she says. “And that is just something to maybe have some expectations for.”

Crossing also says parents should trust themselves that they have worked every day to raise their child, made intentional choices about their parenting and their values, and set a personal example for their children. That’s not nothing, that is huge, Crossing says.

Now that her only daughter has gone to study at Northeastern, Antoanela Daha is planning to pick up some creative hobbies outside of her work and spend some of the freed up time on herself. 

“I am sure I’ll be okay,” Daha says.

She says her husband will miss their daughter, too, but he is more reasonable and less emotional about it.

“He knows that she is in the right place,” Daha says. “I think he is very confident that she is going to do very well.”

For media inquiries, please contact media@northeastern.edu. 

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