Excitement, loss, anxiety, relief—parents can wrestle with a whole host of complicated emotions when their young adult child leaves home for college. Our Founder and Clinical Director Matt Lundquist returned to WNYC’s All Of It with Alison Stewart to discuss how parents can make room for all of their sometimes conflicting feelings as their kids gain independence and return to school.
In the segment “Working Through Back-to-School Anxiety,” which expands on last year’s discussion on back-to-school anxiety with All of It, Matt joins guest host David Furst to respond to callers who express a wide range of reactions to their children leaving home. Many of the callers seem to describe, what Matt articulates as, ambivalence, meaning “the appreciation of the fact that these experiences can contain multitudes of feelings.” While sending a young adult off to school can feel like a loss to some parents, he says, “Growing up and establishing independence is also a point of having children and raising children.” Witnessing this milestone and seeing a young adult off and independent in the world can be “really joyful and, for some people, a relief.”
Many parents also mourn a young adult’s return to school. While, as a culture, we typically understand mourning in the context of something bad happening, Matt notes, “…mourning maybe is better understood as something we experience and work through during periods of change.” For instance, a child going to college marks “a very significant change” in their relationship with their parents. Mourning is, Matt explains, “a process that…generally speaking, results in arriving in a new place where we’re more at peace with things.”
No matter what parents are feeling, Matt emphasizes that parents should take care to not overdetermine their or their child’s experience: “You can be open to the idea that this thing that maybe lots of people are saying is big and scary and hard maybe won’t be for you.” There is also a chance that it may be challenging for a parent but not for their child. Or, as Matt offers, “It may be that everyone has complicated feelings but different feelings, and we want to make room for that.”
Matt also shares with All Of It a few questions he sees parents often wrestling with, including the delicate balance that needs to be struck regarding communication. Some parents may find themselves wanting to text their college students all of the time; others naturally may give their kids more space. Matt encourages parents to ask themselves: Am I texting to make myself feel better and relieve my own anxiety or am I texting because I want to make sure my child is feeling supported? If the former, he suggests texting a friend or other supportive loved one instead. However, “it’s also important from the child’s perspective that parents be in touch.”
Another question parents frequently confront is when to be concerned and step in if a student is struggling. Often this is in the context of emotional struggles as students adjust to life outside of their childhood home and make new friends. In these “real judgment calls,” Matt frequently urges parents to make use of a school’s resources for guidance. “They’re really the experts in terms of supporting young people, particularly the first year, but not limited to that,” he says. “I would encourage folks to be in touch with their school, with the Dean of Students Office, to help coordinate with some of those questions.”