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Coping with Sending Your First Kid to College

It has been one of those summers that can’t be captured in a postcard or photograph.  All parents sending their kids off to college for the first time must feel like me: for every moment captured, ten are fleeting. There is no real compass for how to handle sending your kid off into the great blue yonder we call The College Years, but I can tell you what it feels like. It feels like you are cast about on a vast sea of unknowns and unknowables hoping not to crash against the rocks before the tuition deposit clears.

There is no one right way to handle this emotional seasickness, but for me, I dive into the internet and find the buoys that certainly make this transition easier. Articles about how to send your firstborn son to college and the perfect guide to college restore my mom confidence temporarily to pre-college levels. You don’t get through eighteen years of parenting without knowing how to rock a back-to-school list so every article about how to outfit the perfect college dorm and find bargains to make it all affordable remind me that this new hard thing called college may not be as unfamiliar as I thought.

But of course, it’s not these physical preparations that are really causing me angst. The slightly frantic undercurrent to every precious memory being logged this summer is that I am running out of time: time together as a family, time to just enjoy him for him, time to tell him everything he needs to know about having a beautiful, safe, happy life, time to just love him in the easy way that is a family.

But even this is just the emotional seasickness talking. The truth is that we never stop parenting, it’s just HOW we parent that has to change over the next few years, and my son and I have started adjusting. Here are some things we did, some other things we are doing now, and some things I plan to do to keep us close the next few years.

1) Create a space to come home to.

Special traditions can be a pain with all the planning, time, and expense, but every time I made my husband tape up a pinata for Cinco de Mayo or order special treats for our Doctor Who party, I said the same thing: “Kids come home for stuff like this.” I always wanted to create a country that my kids would want to keep visiting. We invested in experiences over things and hoped that not having a pony would pale in comparison to all the happy memories we made.

2) Be flexible but honest about what I need.

My son worked at a camp all summer away from home for most of the week, so we got a snapshot of what our world will be like without him when he is at college. We learned to adjust more than our grocery bill too. It turns out that 18 year old ideas of what constitutes talking and ours were different. We learned that we needed to set an expectation for when and how often we wanted to actually physically talk to him each week and then text in between. We all got better about sending snapshots of our lives to keep each other in the loop. My son and I both hate Facetime and Skype but other families don’t, so find what works for you.

3) Sit on hands but open ears.

Active parenting is over, but actual parenting is not. It is so much easier to say than do, but I plan to listen 90% of the time and only offer advice when asked. Young adults need to wrestle through decisions and make their own conclusions. If I want to be the sounding board, I need to start acting like one.

4) Set goals and make clear expectations.

Things are gonna get awkward. Most of his life and friends will be far from my daily life and most of his decisions will be too. This is probably the very essence of that emotional seasickness we all feel, but none of these kids are completely autonomous yet. Someone referred to freshman as high schoolers who happen to be in college and that feels right. My son and his peers won’t have all the life skills figured out by October, but that’s okay and expected.  Being honest about what they can expect, what we expect, and what we want for them and what they want for themselves will do much to create a positive relationship this year. In that vein, it’s time to talk about alcohol, sex, and money. Be honest with them about what they can do to keep themselves safe in these areas.

Also, be ready to tell them that college is not a magical place of unicorns and rainbows. It’s also hard work, crappy roommate drama, and bad food. There are plenty of goods to outweigh the bad, but it’s life and if it’s crappy sometimes, that’s ok.

We are already working on helping our son set realistic goals for himself for the year and this first semester. The power of a written goal cannot be underestimated. It also creates a super easy starting point if you have to have a conversation about poor grades or behavior.

5) Be open.

My husband said it best: It’s always hardest when you don’t know where you are going. This is uncharted territory for us, so we have to be open. Flexibility and an open heart and an open mind will certainly benefit us all. I vow to be open to talking about my own college experience as well as to hearing that his isn’t great. I vow to ask open ended questions as well as be ready for answers that I wasn’t ready for. My mom once told me that it’s perfectly acceptable to say to anyone: “I’m listening, I’m here for you, but I’m going to need some time to process what you told me.” I vow to pull that one out of my back pocket whenever necessary.

The truth of it all is that for some things like sending your kid to college there is no way to go but through it. I plan on channeling my inner Winston Churchill over the next year, and if I am going through hell, I’ll just keep going. After all, “attitude is the little thing that makes a big difference.” That should keep that emotional seasickness in check just as well as Dramamine. Here’s hoping.

Have a kid about to head to high school? Check out that part of this transition series here!

Have a kid about to head to middle school? That part can be found here!

Erin Dymowski co-blogs with Ellen Williams at The Sisterhood of the Sensible Moms and has five children — four sons, 16, 12, 10, and 6 years old and a 14-year-old daughter with her husband Steve.

 *The views and opinions expressed in this blog are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Foundation for Advancing Alcohol Responsibility (Responsibility.org) or any Responsibility.org member.*