College Bound Kids?: Changing Family Dynamics

Part 3 in a series of 4

Whether a child is leaving home for college or because they choose to, parental emotions will run high. From the first time you held them to the day you wave them goodbye you will have been responsible for their care and well-being, you’ll have worried and wept, laughed with joy, burst with pride and loved like you never knew you could.

Now suddenly your role is changing.

It will have been changing for several years. Subtly, quietly, without you noticing, those gentle whispers of change have merged and melded into the fabric of family life without you being aware of them. In a quiet moment you catch sight of yourself in the mirror and wonder at the older, wiser person looking back, saddened by how quickly the years have flown by, never thinking the day would come they wouldn’t be living under your roof.

No more checking on them while they sleep, breathing them in as you kiss them a gentle goodnight. No more laying awake waiting for them coming in from a late night. No more front door flying open at the end of the school day, bags and belongings strewn across the floor, tousled hair and cheeky grins and the eternal question, ‘Mom, what’s for dinner?’

Okay, we need to get a grip here.

You are not the first mother in the world to have a child leave home, thousands of generations have done this before ours.

We are the lucky ones. If we live in a first world country, more of our children will have reached adulthood than at any time in history. In our great-grandmother’s day her life expectancy and the mortality rate of her children makes grim reading. Anyone growing up in the 1940/50s lived with the economic and social aftermath of two world wars, a depression and two generations of young men obliterated.

Even in my (short, obviously) lifetime the advances in communication have been staggering. At college I would walk a block from my shared student house to the public phone, stand in line for at least 30 minutes in the dark, in biting winds, snow and ice to make a call home. After three minutes of feeding coins into the machine the restless line waiting outside would start to twitch and snarl making it clear my time was up.

There were no cell phones, no internet – how did we manage?

Today, if you needed to, wherever your family are in the world you can speak to them in seconds, see their face on a computer screen and in an emergency get to their side as fast as a plane can get you there. No weeks at sea crossing an ocean, letters taking months and if you were lucky a crackling faint telephone call on a special occasion.

Admittedly in the past your child would have been moving to the next hut, village or town, but the way communications work for us our children are just as close when we need to see them or hear their voice.

Remember when they were born and you held them in your arms, gazing into those intense deep blue pools of need looking back at you? You wondered how this had happened, how you’d become a parent and how the hell you were going to be up for the job?

Well you were, you’ve done it. You’ve done it by instinct, talking, reading, observing.

From birth to kindergarten, elementary school and high school you’ve parented, set an example, been a role model. You’ve learned to adapt, multi-task, go with the flow. Children leaving home is just the next stitch in life’s rich tapestry. The next phase.

Like everything that’s gone before it’s not a bad thing, just different, and for the first time in years you may feel uncertain, not in control, hesitant about how to make this next challenge a positive one for all of you. So what’s new? You do that in every other aspect of your life.

What’s new are the emotions you’re experiencing, the sense of life being slightly out of kilter, sudden moments of unexplained tearfulness as you support your child on their great adventure. Those emotions are not something you can check off, they’re different for everyone because each family and the dynamics within it are unique. The intensity and variety of emotion will depend whether it’s a first child, middle child, last child, or only child leaving home.

If you’ve done it once  you may be better prepared this time but it will still be different – now you’ll have two children to parent by email or ‘fill-in-the-blank’.

Then there are the siblings who will be watching the process wondering, with the self-absorption of teens, how the situation will impact them. Will the parental spotlight be turned in their direction and other mortifying thoughts.

Like any life transition involving loss and grief (death, divorce, moving house, moving country, bankruptcy, illness) there are stages to go through before change is accepted. Knowing this will make your feelings easier to handle – what you feel is normal.

First child to leave home : If this is your first child to go the transition will be slightly easier because in many ways life at home will go on as it always has, except without one of you there for an extended period of time. You’ll still be involved with school and out of school activities with younger children. Eventually the day comes and only one remains in the nest and it’s their final year in school.

I’m going to say something now which may cause gasps of horror and sharp intakes of breath.

Give your child space to breathe in their final year.

Don’t make a big deal out of everything being the last… school trip, social, concert, birthday at home. I hold my hands up with the rest, but unless it’s done with humour your child is going to get stressed.

Some schools like to make a huge deal out of the final year, marking it with activities and special events. This is great for those who want to get involved, it doesn’t mean you have to. I’ve seen moms get so wrapped up with their child’s last year that they’re left bereft and lost when it’s over, when the school gates are closed to them and they’ve not given any thought to what they want to do.

Last or only child leaving home : If its your only or last child to leave the impact will be harder. The empty nest.

Along with that comes the inevitable realisation that the years of raising the family are finally over. It can be a tough time even if you’ve planned for it, which in an ideal world you should have.

I’d recommend anyone facing an empty nest to start planning your new phase of life at least two years before it happens. You can spend a year thinking about it, a year planning how to implement it. Do not get too distracted or involved with the social aspects of your child’s last year at school, you’ll have enough to deal with keeping them on track with studying and college applications. There will always be enough moms to help out at school who won’t be saying goodbye to their last or only child.

If you’re an expat spouse the chances are that between international moves, raising a family and problems with work visas you may not have worked for a while. But you will have done something because most expat women I know are a force to be reckoned with. Plan a new career, find a long forgotten interest you’d like to pursue, plan travels with your spouse, redecorate your home, take long walks but start to plan something, engage possibilities. Plans don’t have to be set in stone, be flexible, be open minded but keep looking forward.

What your child expects from you : However confident and excited your child may be, every child leaving home will be apprehensive, scared and unsure under the bravado. They don’t have the life experience to know it will be okay, but if they’ve undertaken international moves or lived outside their home culture they are, without a doubt, going to be far better prepared for college than 90% of the other students.

Prepared in some ways but not in others. Wherever they’ve lived in the world they’ve had the family round them, the stable rock in choppy seas. Bonds in expat families are often tighter and more intense because you’ve had to rely on each other for support each time you’ve moved. This time they will be on their own.

How you respond and react in this situation can make a huge impact. As the clock ticks to them leaving here’s a reminder of a few things you might want to think about at the last minute,

■ your child will be need to know that life at home will be carrying on as normal in their absence, it’s their bedrock.

■ don’t mope around or cry the entire week before they leave, they don’t need the guilt trip and your other kids will be unimpressed.

■ let them know you love them and will miss them but that you’re excited for them and can’t wait to hear about their new adventures.

■ if they’re getting stressed and unsure of what they’re doing, stay calm, let them know if college/choice of course has been a mistake then it’s not the end of the world. They need reassurance and calm counselling. They need a parent.

■ if they are feeling apprehensive, scared and confused, let them know its okay to feel this way. Make it clear you will support them whatever, that they can talk to you about anything without judgement. They are adults and yours is now a supporting role.

■ for most kids these last minute nerves are just that; once they have left and throw themselves into college life they will settle well.

■ for some children those feelings of apprehension and negativity may not be quite so easy to shake off. Don’t dismiss them.

■ there are many kids each year who have problems adjusting to life away from home, adjusting to college, adjusting to change. If a child verbalises these fears validate them. Make it very clear if things don’t work out there are other options, they won’t have disappointed you, or let you down, that their well-being is your priority.

■ talk about and plan for their trip back home, book it as soon as they have their college schedule. It will give all off you something to look forward to in the early days of adjustment.

■ slip a copy of Tina Quick’s A Global Nomad’s Guide to University in their suitcase.

At the end of the day you can only do your best and trust those parental instincts which have guided you this far. It doesn’t matter how other parents, families and students are coping with the changes ahead, what matters is you and your family.

Your family will always be there whatever happens. It’s evolving, as it always has, a little more painfully than in the past, but evolving none the less. You can do this and will do it well, just as you did when you first became a parent.
The next post in this series will cover the leaving and early days of transition. What to do if your child is struggling and how your family adapts to the change.

Part 4  College Bound Kids?: After They’ve Gone

Part 2  College Bound Kids?: The Practical Stuff for Heading Overseas

Part 1  College Bound Kids?: You’re Not on Your Own

Just for fun  College Bound Kids?: So You Think They’re Smart?

About wordgeyser

Our anglo/american family used to live in four countries (USA, Canada, UK and the Netherlands) on two continents, separated by distance, time zones, circumstance and cultures. It has been a scary, enriching, challenging place to be. The only things guaranteed to get us through were a sense of humour and the amazing people met along the way. . . This year everything changed with a move for us from the Netherlands, – and a move along with us for our son and his wife from the UK – to Houston, Texas, the same city as our daughter. With our youngest in Vancouver, Canada, we are now all living on the same continent. How this happened, and more importantly why, will be the subject of this ongoing blog...
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11 Responses to College Bound Kids?: Changing Family Dynamics

  1. Becky says:

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  2. Poonam says:

    Jane, I’ve really enjoyed this series, and read with interest. As you know, we are both in the last child to be leaving camp, and I am definitely feeling more than a little sad. The very important thing as you mention is to have something to do/to look forward to – in our case, moving and renovating a house. I’m sure we will all survive and come out of the process stronger and hopefully closer as families.

    • wordgeyser says:

      Hi Poonam, it’s an unsettling time all round but it definitely makes you stronger and closer as a family – at least that was my experience with the older two. Guess they need to try their wings and come back by choice not because they have to. By then we’ve made the adjustment to having adult children – a different phase but equally rewarding.

  3. Jane says:

    Just ordered the book, and will be rereading these posts over the next couple of weeks!

  4. Tina Quick says:

    Many thanks for suggesting putting a copy of my book, “The Global Nomad’s Guide to University Transition,” into the departing students’ hands. It is so refreshing to see the stages of transition being addressed. I look forward to your next posting on “leaving” and the early days of the “transition” stage. One dean of international students at an east coast university recently shared with me that she used my book last fall to teach international students and TCKs about the stages of transition and many times throughout the course of that year students came up to her and thanked her for letting them know what they could expect to experience throughout the cycle of adjustment. Knowing about it doesn’t keep it from happening but it does help reduce the number of surprises and normalizes the experience for them.

    • wordgeyser says:

      Hi Tina, many thanks for your input on a subject which has had very little coverage. Understanding the transition can gives a sense of control over sometimes overwhelming feelings of sadness, confusion and loss. Knowing your emotions are normal and part of a bigger process is a comfort in itself. Thanks for a great book!

  5. Jo Parfitt says:

    Great stuff, again! I can now say that those schooldays are over. Both boys will be gone within 5 weeks and I know it’s easy to say I haven’t mothered or smothered, but in truth, I must have done. This week my friend Carolyn (whose kids are 4 and 7 -go figure) told me I just had to let them fall and let them fail or else they would never learn. But today, when number 2 had lost his phone charger, again, and his OV chipcard, again and his bike had a puncture, again, I put my hands over my metaphorical ears and did not go and look for the charger and the card nor take his bike to the mender myself. We all have to learn here, don’t we?

    • wordgeyser says:

      Hi Jo, yep, it’s a huge learning curve for all of us. And I’m as bad as you when it comes to chasing about after kids but this year WILL be different. It doesn’t help them in the long run, we all know that! Two leaving at the same time is tough, wish you tons of luck with that!

  6. Wise words indeed. As you so aptly point out, we’ve been doing the delicate balancing act between monitoring and not hovering/smothering for years, making finely tuned adjustments as they’ve grown toward adulthood. It’s another phase we’ll have to adjust to. I limited myself to helping out at one senior year event (and stayed out of his line of sight throughout). I did insist on his reading Tina Quick’s book already, and asked him what he considered the top five points made. And yes, flight home for the holidays is booked. As the Brits like to say, I’m working on ‘keeping calm and carrying on’.

    • wordgeyser says:

      Hi Linda, congratulations on a job very well done. You’re a credit to your son and proof that organisation and calmness will carry you through. You may feel apprehensive and nervous, but it doesn’t show on the outside and won’t transfer to him. Thinking of you.

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