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Separation Anxiety: Parents and Students Deal with Leaving for College

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This month, thousands of recent high school graduates will head off to college and for many, it will be their first time away from home. Despite the excitement of beginning a new phase in their lives, feelings of anxiety are completely normal—for both the new college freshmen and their parents.

Moving into a dorm and being instantly immersed into a completely foreign environment can cause anxiety and even bouts of homesickness in young people, but things are often worse for parents than their children. College freshmen will be living with roommates and meeting dozens of other students that are in the same boat; parents whose children are suddenly missing from the house after eighteen years, though, often feel empty, isolated and alone.

Colleges Want to Shorten the Student Move-In Process

Although some overprotective parents will disagree with the process, more and more colleges are forcing Mom and Dad off campus as quickly as possible once their child is moved into their new dorm room. An August 22, 2010 New York Times article on the topic—appropriately titled Students, Welcome to College; Parents, Go Home— explains that schools are even building activities into move-in day that will speed up that initial separation.

Atlanta’s Morehouse College has begun using a formal “Parting Ceremony” to do the dirty deed. Incoming freshmen will be marched through the gates of campus, which will then swing shut—literally leaving the parents outside. The University of Minnesota is using a similar, although sneakier, tactic to separate new college students from their parents. Parents will be invited to a reception so students can meet their roommates and set up their dorms without adults in the mix.

Grinnell College in Grinnell, Iowa has started urging parents to leave campus soon after students are moved into their dorms, and a meeting for incoming freshmen and their families helps do the trick. The meeting is held in the campus gym, but new students must sit together on one side of the bleachers while their parents are seated on the other side. The president of the college then welcomes the incoming class with his back to the parents—a symbolic gesture performed intentionally.

Dealing with Separation Anxiety

Joyce Holl of the National Orientation Directors Association says that departure ceremonies are growing in popularity. Other schools simply specify events for students only after a particular time on orientation schedules so parents get the message that it’s time to get out.

A Newswise press release dated August 16, 2010 advises parents dealing with separation anxiety as their children head off to college to let go in stages. While it’s important to keep in touch, avoid doing so in an overly intrusive way. Parents should want to hear about their children’s new lives at college, but they do not need to hear every single detail. This will encourage children to learn how to survive on their own.

The Newswise press release also offers helpful advice for parents: Make sure your student knows he or she is welcome home. Despite what TV commercials may tell you, the day you drop off your child at school, don’t rush out and turn their room into an office or family room.

“They want to feel connected just like you do,” explains Dr. Levester Johnson, vice president of student affairs at Butler University.

Parents Should Have Fun While their Children Do

An August 22, 2010 Chattanooga Times Free Press article by Karen Nazor Hill featured profiles of three different families, three sets of parents dealing with their child leaving for college. One mother, Valerie Swafford, felt that saying good-bye was difficult but is going to deal with her newfound empty house by getting out there and having fun. “I’m working out more, taking salsa dance classes and considering joining the Unum bowling league. If my kids are having fun without me, I’m going to do the same,” she said.


Melissa Rhone+

Melissa Rhone earned her Bachelor of Music in Education from the University of Tampa. She resides in the Tampa Bay area and enjoys writing about college, pop culture, and epilepsy awareness.

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