Parenting Adolescents — 05 October 2004
When the first child leaves home

So your first child is heading for college? What a wonderful and exciting event it is for you and your child. As you congratulate him or her for this success, give yourself the appropriate kudos for guiding your child toward this passage in his or her life. Now you can relax and rejoice. But do you? Many parents find sending the oldest child to college a rather unsettling experience.

The goal of parenting is to help the child develop the appropriate skills toward an autonomous life. College is a four-year transition from dependence to autonomy. In college youngsters mature, expand their horizons, learn to think well, develop social and interpersonal skills and often make lifelong friends. They become more responsible for their actions, more independent and self-sufficient. Often the skills they learn further prepare them for future employment and love relationships.

Since college is such a valuable experience for a young adult, why would parents be less than delighted when their children leave home? We are familiar with the “empty nest syndrome” when all the children leave home, but why would the oldest child’s departure, while other children are still home, be so difficult?

One answer is that though the parents are often thrilled for the young adult’s new life, they are also experiencing a separation anxiety by proxy. Ironically, the feeling parents may have about their first child leaving home is similar to the ones their child may have had when he or she first went to school. A kindergartner transition to school requires leaving the comfort of home, familiar surrounding, routine, love and security for an unknown world full of strangers. The youngsters who experience separation fears may cling to the parents for security and protection. Parents of young adults become anxious for their children as they leave home, fearing for their children’s safety and well being. They are concerned about their inability to protect their adult children from a distance. The daily supervision and attention are no longer an option with a child/adult who is far away.

Another factor that causes parents to feel ill at ease with the departure of the first child is that the original constellation of the family has just been altered. The change in the family structure is as if you pulled one central card out of a house of cards, and tipped the balance of the whole structure. There is a destabilizing effect anytime we change the composition of a family. By the time the oldest child is ready to depart, the family as a whole has spent probably fourteen or more years together. The bonds between the parents and each child, as well as between each parent and each child creates a net of intersecting heart strings. This mesh is so tightly knit that any change creates a discomfort knot for all the members of this family.

I remember when our oldest son left for college, how hard it was for me to set the table for four. It felt disrespectful to him as though his missed place setting represented his exclusion from the family. Four was an uncomfortable number for our family of five. So I set it for five and took it off at the end of the meal. It was my way of holding on to the symbols of our unity as a five-member family. With time, it became easier to focus my attention not on who was missing but on who was there. I hope that our other two sons did not feel slighted during that period.

The unsettling feeling parents describe about their first child leaving for college are of disorientation, loss, and emptiness. The younger siblings often echo these emotions as well. Not infrequently, the freshman has been the siblings’ leader and role model and his absence creates a great void for his younger brothers and sisters. The younger children may require time to grieve the loss of their mentor. Parents may not give sufficient credence to the pain younger siblings may feel due to the fact that outwardly the peers may have been at odds with each other. Regardless of how contentious the relationship may have appeared, the departure of the oldest is a deeply felt loss to the remaining children.

It must be said that although the leaving of the oldest child may be a bittersweet experience for many parents, there are others who are comfortable with this family transition and feel at ease with the tightening of the family “circle”. For some it is a reduction of burdens and a sense of satisfaction at the completion of one parenting task.

Whatever your experience may be, or may have been, remember the following:

  • Whatever you feel about your oldest child leaving home is normal and acceptable.
  • You are not necessarily a better parent if you find this transition to be hard than if you feel at ease with it.
  • Praise yourself for your role in helping your child achieve college status.
  • Trust that your young adult is ready to undertake the challenges of transitioning from childhood to adulthood.
  • Remember that parenting never ends, it only changes its form. You are now the adult mentor to your child and provide support, love and affirmations. (Advise and warnings, values and suggestions are only appropriate when solicited by your child.)
  • Concentrate your attention on your other children at home who still rely on you daily.
  • Recognize that the younger children may be grieving for the loss of their older sibling, even if they do not articulate it to you.
  • Realize that your loss and adjustment are temporary and require some introspection. With time you will resume being your vibrant self.
  • Be prepared that the leaving of the next child and the ones thereafter may also require additional adjustment. By the time all kids are gone, you may be facing the “empty nest syndrome”.

October 3, 2004

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About Author

Offra Gerstein, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in clinical practice in Santa Cruz, California for over 25 years, and specializes in relationship issues for couples and individuals for improved quality of life. Her work includes: mate selection, marriage, long term relationships, gay and lesbian couples, work relationships, parenting issues, family interactions, friendships, and conflict resolutions. Offra has lectured extensively to various groups, conducted support groups for several organizations, and has been writing a weekly column "Relationship Matters" for the Santa Cruz Sentinel since 2001.

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