Make college sendoff a success

Moving day can be emotionally as well as physically and financially exhausting for a college freshman and her parents.
Moving day can be emotionally as well as physically and financially exhausting for a college freshman and her parents.
Published Aug. 24, 2012

Maryann called to see if she and her husband, Scott, could come in for an appointment as soon as possible. I had first met with them about four years ago when they were having problems with their 14-year-old daughter, who had recently been diagnosed with depression.

Brianna was a bright girl who had trouble dealing with the challenges of puberty and the academic demands of high school. Her parents worried she was socializing with a rough group of kids who would have a negative impact on her behavior and schoolwork.

By now, Brianna had successfully worked through those issues and was getting ready to leave for college. Her parents, however, weren't doing so well.

"Scott and I are really scared about the influences she might face on her own," Maryann told me. "And we won't be there in person to help her make the right decisions."

Scott went on to describe the ambivalence he had been feeling all summer. "Yesterday morning, I stood in her bedroom staring at all the boxes piled up on her floor. None of this seems real. Ten minutes later, I can't wait to get her settled into her dorm so we can get on with the rest of our lives."

The summer has probably been a whirlwind for those of you sending a son or daughter off to college for the first time. This stage of life can be both challenging and rewarding for everyone involved. Parents are shopping for everything a freshman might need while students are saying goodbye to old friends and getting to know roommates online.

Don't be surprised if you experience a roller coaster of emotions — and don't expect it to stop when you drop off your child at the dorm.

This transition can have emotional and even physical ripple effects on the entire family. Separation anxiety on all sides is common, even amid more mundane concerns such as how much money to deposit in the student's account.

Transitions trigger stress so it is important to maintain a healthy lifestyle while dealing with the upheaval and instability. Busy as you may be, continue taking long walks and exercising, remember to breathe deeply whenever emotions seem to be getting the best of you and don't forget to be generous with hugs. In addition to the obvious emotional benefits, hugs help release the brain chemical oxytocin, which helps to make you feel more safe and secure. The ground you have been walking on is shifting, and you need all the safety and security you can muster.

This is a good time to practice the art of reframing: Try to view your experience as an opportunity for growth. Shift into the coach or mentor role with your freshman, and you'll help him or her make decisions independently, and gain strength to face consequences.

Your son or daughter will face opportunities that require self-control, self-discipline and perseverance, the hallmarks of healthy adolescent development. Parents need to face their own fears about these challenges before they step in to rescue their soon-to-be-adult child.

Every time you try to solve a problem that your child could reasonably handle, you send a message of distrust. Essentially, you're saying: "You still need me to do this for you because you are not capable of handling this yourself."

Keep up with Tampa Bay’s top headlines

Keep up with Tampa Bay’s top headlines

Subscribe to our free DayStarter newsletter

We’ll deliver the latest news and information you need to know every morning.

You’re all signed up!

Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.

Explore all your options

Is that really what you mean to say?

Coaching your child through this learning process is easier said than done when there have not been many hurdles or disappointments along the way. Keep in mind that most of the time, young adults can deal with the outcomes of their actions or inactions, on their own.

Rather than hovering, parents can focus on themselves and their other important relationships. Rather than dwelling on losing a beloved family member from your daily life, now is a time to take stock. Invest time and energy in yourself, your goals and the people around you.

If this is the last child to leave the nest, examine the possibilities available now that your parenting role is less demanding. This is the perfect time to take that pottery class you always dreamed about, or try some other new activity that will help you meet new people.

During our sessions, Maryann and Scott discussed some of the fears they each had for Brianna, as well as the new roles they would play in her life.

And I shared with them one of my favorite observations about this transition, from author Robert Cormier:

"You bring your child up to be self-reliant and independent and they double cross you by becoming self-reliant and independent."

Barbara Rhode is a licensed marriage and family therapist in St. Petersburg and co-author of "Launching Your Child to College and Beyond,'' available at She can be reached at (727) 418-7882.