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Posted at 11:00 AM ET, 08/19/2011

What to do when your child leaves for college

This was written by Sheri Rosenfeld, a psychotherapist in private practice in Washington, D.C. She is the mother of three children, two who are in or on their way to college. In her practice she works with many peoplestruggling with loss and transition. She is currently writing a book of essays and interviews sharing women’s life stories of transitions, trials and tribulations. Rosenfeld is a fellow at the International Psychotherapy Institute and a member of the International Association of Eating Disorder Professionals.

By Sheri Rosenfeld

When my first child left for college, I felt like a pin cushion being poked every few seconds with another question and worry:

What sort of relationship would we have in the future? Would she ever call again? Was my job really over, as some people kept saying? (“You are done baking them. The hard part is over.”) Have I lost all control? What does that new role as a mother look like and will I be good at long distance parenting? Can I really have a grown-up conversation with my child? Do I really want to? What happens when I no longer have to sign anything because she is 18?

The fact is that there are no quick and easy answers for how to feel about your child leaving home. Here are some concerns you may have when your child goes to college, ones that I have heard commonly in my practice when I am helping parents through transitions with their children. Maybe this can help you too.

*The relationship we are to have in the future is not the same one we have had with them in the past – but, actually, it doesn’t matter. They change and so do we. We guided them, raised them, helped them know right from wrong. What we have now is a young adult who no longer wants the “teaching moments.” They want desperately to find their own voice and your voice to become a background noise.

*What form will our communication take and will it be satisfying? For most parents, how you communicate with your child is likely to change. More than ever, exchanges will be in sound bites. The new age of texting allows kids to feel onnected to you. When you are longing to hear their voice what you might get instead is an incredulous, “Didn’t we just speak to each other a few moments ago?” The phone calls or texts or emails may seem harried, frantic and filled with emotion, leaving you wondering if she/he may need to come home, or that you may need to go to school and help with some ordeal. Rest assured that nine times out of ten all will be fine in a few moments and what she/he needed was to share and dump. That will be your new role: Becoming a repository for a share and dump. They need you to say, “I’m sorry you are having a bad day” while no longer really wanting you to have too many ideas for a solution. Furthermore, they almost always feel better just seconds after hanging up. It’s the parents who are left with that knot in our stomach for days. Nonetheless, move on and learn to let go.

*Is our job really over? No. It’s never over. It is has just morphed into a new formulation. Our job now is to step out of their way and become a cheerleader for their new life and their exploration. It is not uncommon to feel the overwhelming desire to say something and to continue teaching. I learned — and continue to learn — to keep my mouth shut, listen carefully to what they are sharing, and step away until they come back and ask for help.

*Have we lost control? YES. Get a dog if you really need to be in control, start a new career, or take up a long desired hobby. Cleaning the closet does bring a great sense of control for those of you who really feel the need to control something.

*No longer needing your permission on medical, housing, school, grade forms, etc is real. That takes a few moments, or months to get over and to understand given that just a few months before you were signing everything for them and holding their hand at the doctor’s office.

When September arrives and you have hugged your child goodbye for the semester, just understand the following:

1). It is okay to have a day when it seems as if your life purpose has changed drastically and you feel empty or lost.

2) It is okay to feel relief and joy at the idea that you don’t have to get home in time to take that child to a practice or recital.

3) It’s okay to be scared for a moment if that was your only or last child leaving the house and you look at your husband or wife and say, “now what?”

4) It’s okay to reassess your life’s goals and to reach out to friends more than you ever have — and dip into the bucket list.

5) It’s okay to have a day, a moment or a month that feels like this experience just aged you and you now are really sure that time is moving ahead.

In other words, it’s all okay. This is a major life transition that shouldn’t be taken lightly

Just know one thing: You are not alone.

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