How to Handle Life After Your Child Goes to College

Overview: Grief is normal when your child goes to college. Here are some tried and true ways to handle it from a mom who has been there with five kids.

You just dropped off your baby at college. Yes, you wanted this for them; and yes, it’s a natural part of growing up. But still. Their image got smaller and smaller in the rearview mirror, and you may have cried. And as you face frontward again towards home, wiping your eyes, you wonder how you will be able to face life without them in the house on a daily basis.

Grief is normal when your child goes to college. Here are some tried and true ways to handle it from a mom who has been there with five kids.

This has been me MANY TIMES. At one time we had THREE girls in college at the same time. From a busy-happy-chaotic summertime melée in the house to quiet as a tomb in less than a week. Killer, y’all.

A few years ago, when it was the first time that two girls (not just one, as it had been the two previous years) left us, I went through a really depressed time for a few weeks. I missed them SO much.

But eventually life became livable again. I learned how to make the ache more manageable. Can I be honest? It doesn’t ever fully go away. BUT when you see your child taking on the world and loving it, it all becomes much easier to bear. Trust me on this one!

Here are some suggestions for how to handle the transition after your child goes to college:

1) Realize that grief in this instance is perfectly normal.

Having emotions is obviously part of being a human being. When you know your sadness at this time is a common thing, it seems more bearable somehow.

Just roll with it, pamper yourself for a little while, and get lots of hugs from whoever is left at home. Remember that it WILL get better; the sadness will not always be quite so painful.

2) Don’t hesitate to call!

When you are thinking about your child/student/young-person-out-in-the-world-on-their-very-own-and-who-knows-what-might-happen, go ahead and pick up the phone. There is no reason a parent can’t let the child know that he is being thought of and missed.

I’ve read articles that say to give  some space, and to an extent that is true — don’t smother. Each child will approach college differently, but any child will be warmed by a call from home that is full of encouragement and loving words.

And you will be boosted up just by hearing their voice, even if only for a few minutes. Don’t expect a long conversation, though; the college life is a busy one!

Caveat: do NOT pour your grief out over the phone; the child may be just as sad as you are and that could be overwhelming to them. Just sayin’.

Caveat #2: Be prepared to LISTEN and say lots of oo’s and ah’s. At this stage of parenting, the kid does not need (nor probably want) you telling them what to do. Your role now becomes more of a cheerleader than a coach. This is not easy, LOL, but try to do the best you can!

Texting is obviously another way to let them know they’re thought of — and often it’s easier for them to answer. But don’t let this be the only way you communicate. Hearing YOUR voice is good for them, too — although they may never admit it, LOL!

3) Start planning care packages. 

Make a list of all their favorite snacks. Be thinking about what other needs they might have — pencils, socks, deoderant, etc. — things they will not want to spend money on, LOL.

You can start browsing the clearance aisles or gather those special foodstuffs when you head to the grocery store. Write a note to go in the box; maybe include some photos from home. Being able to do something concrete to care for them is helpful in easing the pain of distance; and for them, receiving a box from home is like getting a hug.

Many colleges will make this easier for you around finals time. My youngest is now at a college where they contact me a few weeks before finals and provide a link where I can order a pre-made care package of snacks and other goodies to be delivered during finals week for a mere $15. This is a no-brainer! (Some of the other colleges my kids went to had something similar but for much more money. We didn’t do those.)

Another option is good ‘ol Amazon. When you get the missing-them feels, hop on and browse and click and pay and have it delivered to them on campus. Easy peasy!

In full disclosure, I have never been a very good “care package mom”. No shame to anyone else like me — our kids know us by now, right? LOL. I was never much of a “birthday party mom” either. I did them kicking and screaming!

But for those who like doing this sort of thing, it can definitely help you feel better.

4) Don’t forget the kids still at home!  

I know this goes without saying, but sometimes we can be so focused on missing someone who isn’t there that we don’t fully appreciate the ones who are there. Or we take them for granted, or we make them feel less than special.

Do something fun with the younger children — go out for ice cream or have a bowling night. Make new traditions with them, so that everyone can remember that life is not over just because you can’t ALL be together.

5) Discover a new outlet.

Mine was starting this blog! (Update: And watching it grow over the years as more kids have flown the coop. It’s been super helpful to encourage other moms as a way of forgetting my own feelings.)

What can you find to do that will give your brain something to think about, plan for, and spend time on? Maybe start a new knitting/crocheting project, or paint a room in the house, or plan the veggie garden for this year. Purposely pick something that will take a few weeks… enough time to get over the strongest emotions of loss.

NOTE: If you are now an empty-nester, I cannot stress the importance of this one enough. It’s time to reinvent yourself, time to indulge in all those things you were wanting to try but couldn’t when there were kids at home.

Start getting your nails done regularly. Join a gym. Enroll in a class about something you’ve always wanted to learn. Travel. Volunteer. My favorite is that we go out to eat a lot more now! Woot!

It’s too easy to sit around and mope or binge Downton Abbey on Netflix. This can be fun for the short term, but it soon grows even more depressing. Get productive instead — you’ll feel better more quickly!

6) Start planning for the next time you will see them.

Will there be a Parent’s Weekend on campus? Or will your kid be able to come home before Thanksgiving? Start cleaning their room — launder the sheets, sweep the floor, whatever — or planning their favorite menu. Maybe pick up a special gift that you can take with you or that can be waiting for them on their bed when they arrive.

UPDATE: We just sent our last child off to college. She is an athlete, so I’m planning for a weekend at the college in about six weeks to watch some games. I’ve made reservations at an Airbnb, so she can stay with us, if she wants, to get off of campus for a few nights. Knowing I will see her again fairly soon is helping ease the pain of now!

7) Pray for your child.

Get a copy of their schedule and pray as they go to class. Pray for their friendships. Pray they will make wise decisions. Pray for them to be protected from harm. Pray for their future spouse.

In reality, prayer is the most important thing we can do for them now. When you feel depressed, or when you miss them, don’t dwell there too long — use that emotional energy for prayer instead.

God will hear and answer, and you will feel like you are still having an impact on your child’s life, even if it is more indirect than when they are living at home with you.

This is what we raise them for, is it not? To leave us, to go out into the world and lead productive lives?

Though we feel sad, we need to remember that when our child goes to college, they are fulfilling the goals we had for them, that we have been working toward since they were born.

Parenting is not for the faint of heart, is it?  And the kicker is that once we’ve started, we are in it for the rest of our lives!! So we must be prepared for these emotions to come and go through the seasons… and remember there is much to be thankful for in every season.

And even in the midst of the emotions, we know one thing: We wouldn’t have it any other way, would we?


15 thoughts on “How to Handle Life After Your Child Goes to College”

  1. This is so me today. I just emailed my friend, a VERY recent empty nester and talked about how we pray for them to grow up and get married and serve the Lord, then when they do, we have that brief moment of, “boy I sure wish he still lived at home, he could even bring his wife!” I have to talk myself out of it and say, I have a 21 y.o. college graduate, who is married to a great gal, going to Seminary, working FT and is not dependent on his parents, I should be ecstatic! I can’t even type this without crying, what is wrong with me?!………

    1. Aw, Deb, hugs!!! I have come to the conclusion that it will probably never get any easier. Maybe if we stop expecting it to, it actually will… :-)

    1. I just dropped my first born off over the weekend and was not prepared for the grief I am feeling. I feel the same, simultaneous joy and sadness.

      1. Hi, I just done the same thing. We leave him today and my emotions are through the roof! Happy and sad at the same time.

  2. Thank you for this article. I am a mess after dropping our son at college, 11 hours away, last weekend. I miss him so much.

  3. My daughter will be leaving next month. The thought of her not being here is already unbearable. I’m having trouble sleeping just thinking that these are her last days here with me

  4. Missing her kid dearly

    After high school, my daughter immediately left to go to her friends house to prepare for college. Instead of helping her, and dropping her off for the last goodbyes. I feel like I’m missing out and saddens me more. Her friends mom is helping my kiddo. But I ask my child I she needs help. Im good. Which really hurts me. We seem farther away. we always had a good relationship until she went to her friends. she’s making up excuse why she can’t be around mom. That hurts even more. She hardly speak to me anymore and it’s been 2 months.

  5. Oh, my. I have tears in my eyes just reading about all of your experiences and I have one more year left. This is going to require epic levels of emotional hutzpah.

  6. Dropped my son off at college 3 days ago. He is 7 hours away from home!!! AAHH!!! Really missing him and long for the days when the thought of college was a distant dream. Long for the days when he was little and asking to buy all the cute little novelties by the cash register at the grocery store. The years certainly go by fast. Still have one more at home and will certainly cherish these last 3 years until he leaves for college. Joy, sadness, pride, depression, anxiety, and happiness all at the same time. I had no idea!! Wow!

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