July 25, 2023

We have advice for parents whose teens are moving off to college.

My daughter is adulting like a boss these days. She’s succeeding in her job, paid off student loans, married, owns a house and has given me two adorable “grand-dogs.”  We text and trade memes every day and talk a few times a week.

I’ve gotten this grown-up mother-daughter relationship groove down. To my friends taking children to college for the first time, I may seem cool with having an adult child now, but when it was me making that freshman-year drive with all her stuff in the back of the car … well, I was a mess.

There were no tears when we moved her into the dorm. Not when I drove away from campus, not as I made my way back to Nashville from the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. But the next week, when I reached for the specific brand and flavor of oatmeal that she liked and realized I had no reason to buy it, I bawled like a baby. Choking, snot-nosed sobbing. In the cereal aisle at the neighborhood Publix.

As I look back with the benefit of hindsight, here are some thoughts for parents who have just sent or are about to send their babies off to college:

This is big work, for both of you.

Don’t minimize that. Just like first steps and first words, losing the first tooth, the first date, the first car, this is a major developmental milestone for your child. But it’s also a big developmental phase for you as a parent, especially if you don’t have other children at home. It’s OK to be sad, scared and a little unsure of who you are now and where you go next. Find friends to talk with about it, especially those who have already done it. And trust that you’ll figure it out. It gets better, I promise.

Make sure your child knows you are available, but don’t hover.

My freshman year (1981) was a time of land lines and long-distance telephone cards. Calls cost a lot. Letters took days to deliver. I know my mom was sad and missing me, and I was homesick something awful. But we couldn’t talk more than maybe once a week.

Today, parents have the temptation of cell phone calls, texting, video calls, stalking their social media (we see you).

Resist the urge to over-contact. Seriously. Don’t. They need to build a life on campus, and they can’t do it if you’re bugging them all the time.

You may get really paranoid about their safety.

Or maybe it was just me. Sending her off to college made me recognize that I can’t protect her from everything. I started having all kinds of horrible fantasies about dorm fires and tornadoes and drunken out-of-control frat parties. I had to learn to deal with it without freaking her out. I explained that sometimes I just needed to know, in the moment, that she was safe. We made a joke of it. I would sometimes text her, “Are you dead?” Once, I posted that on her Facebook. She “liked” the post. No comment, just a “like,” but that was enough.

Don’t make your fear, sadness or loneliness their problem.

You’re the parent. Suck it up. Cry on someone else’s shoulder. What she needs to know is that you are proud of her, that you are confident that she can do this, and that you are cheering her on, every step of the way.

Don’t change your child’s room.

Clean it, especially if it’s something of a biohazard zone. But don’t make it a shrine (that’s no good for you) and don’t make it your new yoga room (that’s no good for your child). She may be a young adult, but she needs the security and stability of a room to come home to.

Remember the end game.

The result of successful parenting is an independent adult. You’ve done the work to prepare them. You want them to fly the nest. This is a big step in that direction. Celebrate it. Be proud of this parenting accomplishment.

Besides, fall break will be here before you know it. But that’s a whole other post.

This post was written by Cynthia Floyd Manley, a content and digital strategist at Vanderbilt University Medical Center who has been writing about health, medicine and medical research since before that now grown-up baby was born.

Also, read more advice from a mother who has been there about sending your child to college.

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Adolescents and young adults have unique health care needs. The Adolescent and Young Adult Health Clinic at Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt specializes in promoting the physical and emotional well-being of adolescents and young adults from ages 12 to 22.

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