Parents need to let go at the college drop-off so kids can thrive, experts say

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Sending a child off to college is one of the most exciting and yet emotionally fraught experiences a mom or dad can go through, many parents and guardians say — and that time of year is just about here for millions of families across the nation.

“The emotions at drop-off and in the days after run the gamut,” Mary Anne Donaghey, a Boston-area mom of four sons who has seen each one of them off to college, told Fox News Digital this weekend.

“It’s overwhelming,” she said.

“You feel anxiety, loss and incredible pride — all at the same time.”

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In October 2021, 61.8 percent of 2021 high school graduates ages 16 to 24 were enrolled in colleges or universities, the US Bureau of Labor Statistics reported last year.

If those numbers hold true this year, that’s a lot of moms and dads hugging their kids and waving goodbye with mixed emotions as their kids start the new adventure of higher education — and a new period of growth all around.

College is a time of discovery and exploration for students.  Parents have their own challenges to navigate, too.

College is a time of discovery and exploration for students. Parents have their own challenges to navigate, too.
(AP Photo/Jon Elswick)

Here are some smart survival tips for parents who are sending a child off to college this year — from those who know and who have been there.

Cut back on the constant connection

“Many parents ‘come to college’ with their freshmen via technology, talking and texting throughout the day about every class, meeting and assignment,” Dori Hutchinson, Boston University’s Sargent College associate clinical professor and director of services at BU’s Center for Psychiatric Rehabilitation, told BU Today, a campus publication.

“The hardest thing for me was the lack of daily communication.”

“You want to promote independence in your kid, and this is part of what college is about — developing this independent life,” Hutchinson also told the same outlet.

“Resist texting and phoning [the student] every day,” she advised. “It’s a hard thing to do if you’re not used to it. Try to do it every couple of days, at least in the beginning.”

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One dad from Hampton, Iowa, who has two college graduates echoed this advice.

“The hardest thing for me was the lack of daily communication,” he told Fox News Digital. “But when they’re settling in, it’s critical.”

The college years can be a time of growth for both parent and child, say experts and parents.

The college years can be a time of growth for both parent and child, say experts and parents.
(iStock)

“Your voice may inspire homesickness and tears, so it’s best to ‘go off the grid’ gently. They know you love them and are thinking about them,” he added.

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“Behavioral scientists believe that ‘helicopter parenting’ interferes with normal developmental experiences that allow children to build their own problem-solving skills and competence,” Chris Segrin, head of the University of Arizona’s Department of Communication, explained on the university’s website.

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“For many people, these are developed through trial-and-error experiences,” he continued.

Noting that helicopter-parenting a college-age kid “restricts those learning experiences,” he said that parents often “dispatch their wisdom” gained through their own experience to “solve too many of their children’s problems.”

“Part of growing up is falling flat on your face, dealing with awkward and uncomfortable situations and plain-old not knowing what to do in a given situation.”

“Do not be afraid to let your child struggle a little,” Segrin also advised.

“Struggles are part of life, and most people who conquer their challenges with their own energy and resources come out better fit to face subsequent challenges,” he said.

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Karen Cahill, a parent of two college-age kids and an educator in Massachusetts, agreed with that advice.

“Part of growing up is falling flat on your face, dealing with awkward and uncomfortable situations and plain-old not knowing what to do in a given situation,” she told Fox News Digital.

This period of time

This period of time “can be a great chance” for everyone to grow, say experts and parents who have been down this road.

“What is happening — and it’s uncomfortable — is that you need to change, and ‘hovering’ delays that,” she said. “You will miss the softball games, the family dinners, the standing in the doorway chatting before bed.”

While noting that “this time can be a great chance to enjoy some growth of your own,” Cahill said, “I remember just sitting alone in their rooms, missing them that much.”

“I’d allow myself a few minutes of missing them… then I’d shake it off and get up and do what I had to do.”

A New York mom of two sons said she did the same thing.

“I missed our boys intensely while they were at college,” she said. “I’d allow myself a few minutes of missing them, really missing them. Then I’d shake it off and get up and do what I had to do. It took a lot of discipline! They also knew what they had to do — on their own.”

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She said texting and FaceTiming with the boys periodically helped a lot.

“I think that kept all of us in touch and grounded at the same time,” she said. “But I had to work hard not to overdo it, for all our sakes.”

Learn to support your child differently

Letting go enough to let your kid soar independently does not mean loving the kids any less. It may just mean expressing your care and commitment differently, according to experts.

“When these students come to college, it’s easier for them and their parents to keep in touch than it has ever been before,” Karen Levin Coburn, senior consultant in residence at Washington University in Saint Louis, Missouri, told Collegiateparent.com.

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Coburn is co-author of the book, “Letting Go: A Parent’s Guide to Understanding the College Years.”

It’s challenging, she said, for families to “find the balance between staying connected and letting go.” She added that college students “benefit greatly from having supportive, interested, loving parents.”

“Go out and seek your best and hold yourself to a high standard,” one mom wrote to her daughter in a letter she tucked under her pillow the night before they left for the college drop-off.
(iStock)

“They also benefit from parents who will encourage them to chart their own course, learn to make their own decisions and solve problems,” she said.

Before they even head out, encourage them to take over responsibility for tasks, said Coburn. This includes making their own medical and dental appointments and taking charge of their finances as much as possible, she suggested.

Such tasks as doing their own laundry and keeping the car filled with gas should be routine for them long before they even leave for college.

Let them know you’re there, if they need you

Handling the emotions that go with saying goodbye at the drop-off may be more difficult than the practical side, many parents indicate.

“My husband and I got into the car with our frozen smiles… I didn’t just cry, I sobbed when we were far enough down the road.”

Donaghey, the mom from the Boston area, said the hardest part of her first college drop-off with her son was “trying not to show my real, true emotions in front of him.”

“I knew how nervous he was and I didn’t know how I would handle it if he started to cry,” she said.

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She added, “At the bookstore, I saw a dad openly crying in one of the aisles. Tears were running down his face as he stood in front of the notebooks. I smiled and gave him a nod of understanding.”

Letting go enough to let your kid soar independently during the college years does not mean lessening your love or commitment;  it may mean expressing it differently, according to experts.

Letting go enough to let your kid soar independently during the college years does not mean lessening your love or commitment; it may mean expressing it differently, according to experts.
(AP Photo/Tony Dejak)

Donaghey explained how she handled things. “I bought a cheesy ‘#1 Mom’ hat that I didn’t need or want, gave my son a tight hug and said goodbye,” she said.

“My husband and I got into the car with our frozen smiles,” she said. “I didn’t just cry, I sobbed when we were far enough down the road.”

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Another parent from the Boston area shared the content of the letter that she put under her daughter’s pillow the night before the family left for the college drop-off.

“When you drop them off for college, it’s not goodbye forever. It’s ‘goodbye for now.'”

“Go out and seek the best and hold yourself to a high standard,” mom Tricia Conte wrote to one of her kids.

“Trust me that if you want, you’ll get everything you want,” her note continued. “You are my daughter, my rock, my amazing gift from God.”

She finished her letter, “I am here for you always, even when we are apart. I love you and everything you are, unconditionally.”

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Added the mom from New York whose two boys have graduated from college by now, “Guess what? There’s a lot of joy in the journey. There’s growth on everyone’s part.”

She also said, “They also come home a lot. Which is great. So when you drop them off for college, it’s not goodbye forever. It’s ‘goodbye for now.'”