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?

HUGS!!

It's Not That Hard to Homeschool

50 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. I’m so glad to have found this. I am finding that my grief over the end of my kids’ childhood feels different because I invested SO MUCH time in them over the years. I have one friend who homeschooled along with me but she still has a little one at home. Other friends whose kids are heading off can’t fathom the amount of time homeschooling took, and the connection it built between me and my kids. I’m glad to have this page to help me through the bittersweet transitions to come.

      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.

    1. My oldest moved out halfway thru her senior year. It was devastating. All I can say is let the time pass, make sure she knows you’re here if she needs you, and be patient. It’s been almost 2 years and now my relationship with my daughter is better than ever. I still grieve for what could have been,, but I’m lucky to be allowed into her life at all.

    2. hugs to you
      I hope things are better with your daughter and that you and her “reconnected” before she moved onto campus.
      I’m preparing now even though my daughter doesn’t graduate high school until May 2023. She’s been acting distant (from me) the past 4 months and part of me feels like she’s trying to ease me into the inevitable. I cry every day (in privacy). The college visits haven’t been the “Gilmore Girl” bonding moments that I had envisioned 😂…. xo

    3. I wonder how this turned out for you now, as I am reading this a year later. I went through something similar. My daughter came around, eventually. I hope yours did , too.

  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!

  7. Dropped my daughter off at college 3 hours away this morning and I find myself completely overwhelmed. I literally can not stop crying. Thank you so much for these words of encouragement and practical suggestions for what to do with myself. How do you live without the light of your life? Super glad you suggested I don’t smother or share my grief. I am sure I would have been very guilty on both counts so I am going to make every effort to resist! Bless you! 🙏❤️

  8. I just dropped off my child at College and can’t stop crying. I’m happy for all the opportunities he will have to learn, grow and develop, but I can’t help but feel like my insides have been ripped out. I tell myself I’ve done the best I could and now it’s time for him to get on with the business of becoming a responsible and productive adult at College– just like I had always prayed for. Yet, the pain remains real and intense. His call with a quick question yesterday was the best part of my day.. My mother always said:, one day you will become a mother and you will understand how it feels. She was right! . Now I understand why she enjoys getting calls so much. We have to remember that no matter what we are still parents and they still need our advice and guidance, just differently. Now I have to parent myself threw this painful transiton.

  9. The early morning feedings and diaper changes were not the hardest part—this is. I miss my boys so much. My oldest is starting his third year of college and my second oldest is starting his first year. I 100% agree that praying for your kids is one of the best things you can do for them.

  10. Dropping off last minute things to my son today then headed on the 3hr drive home. This is much harder than I expected! It’s funny.. I’m 5 months pregnant and even though I’m so excited for this new baby, it takes absolutely none of the pain away that I will be feeling. I also have another son starting high school and headed off in 4 years but he says he wants to stay close to home. All I know is that I miss him so much already. Lots of prayer is the only thing that will get me through.

  11. Thank you so much for this. I just said goodbye to my firstborn and I don’t think I will ever stop crying. I am so happy for and proud of him but I don’t know if I can ever stop missing him or feeling sad.

  12. This has been so helpful, I am already feeling sad and depressed. My son will be going away in September. I am an anxious person to begin with. All I ever prayed for was for my two children to be strong and independent. But I am so sad

    1. I have a son who will be off to college in 2024, I have already started thinking how it will b around our house, all these years he ame and my wife have done so much together. But I do understand he has to get in with life, we as parents don’t live forever, and it’s selfish to want them to be with us for the rest of our lives. Our son may go into military after college. I know my mom and dad wanted me to stay near them after college and I eventually did, but this is going to be rough on me.

  13. My youngest moved into his dorm two days ago. The emptiness I’ve felt since then is crushing me to say the least. I’ve been crying almost nonstop for two days. There was a young mother helping her young child up the brick steps leading into church this morning. I instantly flashed back to my son climbing the same steps when he was that size. My mind drifted back to many holiday programs my son took part in over the years at church. Tears were steaming down my face throughout the service. I was in so much pain. I worked around the house this afternoon in a futile attempt to ease my mind.

    I was hard when my daughter moved into her dorm some three years ago but I don’t remember it being anything like this.

    My wife seems to take it in stride all the while I’m experiencing crushing sorrow and emptiness.

    1. I’m so sorry!! I’m going through the same thing right now! I think your tears are a reflection of how much you deeply love and care about him and that, although painful, is beautiful! Sending you love and light! ❤️❤️🙏

    2. My son will b off to college in 2024, already I am thinking and dreading it, I am thinking of all the vacations together, the hunting and fishing. He is our only son and it’s going to be hard on me. I think my wife will take it better than me. I think if I try to take up my time doing things it might help but most likely not, I’ll just be running in circles.

  14. Ann thank you for this post. I dropped my baby (last of four) off at college two days ago in NC (12 hrs away) and today my son left for his college (Texas 3 day drive away). We had the most tight knit relationship between the three of us. It just be and my husband now. I’ve been inconsolable all day. They are all I have. Everything I looked at or think of makes me cry so hard. I mean I looked at apple cider vinegar and cried! My son drank a shot every day. It’s ridiculous. I decided to look online for a way to deal and found your blog. It really made me feel better (even if only for a bit), and I will use those ideas to get over it. Thank you agsin. I needed this.

    1. 12 hours away is a LONG way away! And life is made up of those little moments- like apple cider vinegar, right? Now to readjust- it will get easier!!

  15. Well, I already broke one of the rules.😔 I faced timed and immediately got emotional when I saw my child’s face. This is hard…. I am both proud and sad. My grief led me here and I grateful for this post. I especially appreciate the part about turning my moments of grief into prayer and not neglecting the ones who are still here. I needed this.

  16. Wow. This was good. Thank you from a seasoned mom. I have homeschooled, online public schooled, private schooled, and a 4 year stint of public schooled my 3 daughters, ages 28, 26, and 18. The only one who did public was our youngest. God called her to public school her high school years. She was a light in a dark world. With the other 2 out of the house (married, one an hour away and one 8 hours and a different state – those were hard also, but not as bad . Always had my youngest still) we became extra close. (I had very special times with my oldest 2 also) She has never been embarrassed of me in front if anybody. She never had difficult teenage times. She has always been passionate about her walk with God. Leaving her at college was a similar feeling to losing my mom when I was 21 and my dad when I was 38. She didn’t work this summer and I only do a little work from home so we spent as much time as we could together. I am a blubbery mess especially the first thing in the morning.

    I can’t just pick up and leave the house because although I have help, I caregive my mom in law 3 days a week and every weekday evening.

    However, this encouraged me. I didn’t know you were a Christian homeschool mom until the last part, yet your blog resonated with me from the start, unlike the other articles I started reading. You are doing a good work. Thank you.

    1. ((HUGS, Momma))- I get it- you are describing me and my youngest – and with the last- it’s a whole season that is ending. What a gift our kids are, am I right? And our goal is to send them out so that they can soar, but it’s hard on us! Take good care and thank-you for writing!

  17. I feel like we blanked, and that day is here. My baby girl is going off to college. And maybe I wouldn’t be as weepy if she were commuting. She will be a little over three hours away. And it could be worse. She could be even further away. But not having her here stings in a way that I can’t describe. I don’t like this feeling. I just want to continue being happy for her, but I am unhappy for me. I’ve been a stay at home mom all these years, it will be too quiet. I can always pretend that she is working or with friends or with a boyfriend and keep her door closed for the time being. But right now, I have a lump in my throat, the size of a grapefruit that I want to cry. I wish I could be more like my husband. He is nonchalant about it. I will cry in the middle of Target. I do have one more at home and will be busy with him. But I will be missing my daughter terribly-it went by too fast. Does the sadness go away?

    1. I am feeling the same way. I do find comfort in this blog, knowing that I’m not alone. I guess maybe this is just another push towards God. We as humans go through all sorts of crazy, sad things down here. This is one of those things unfortunately. if we cling to God and light, we are always reminded of where we came from, where we will return to, and that this is temporary. We are not alone and our sadness is a reflection of how deeply we love. In Heaven, all there is is love! So we just have to make the best of each day until we return home! God bless you and God loves you!

    2. Yes, the sadness goes away, but it’s ok to grieve, too. You have been with her for years and years and now her life and yours are changed. It’s a big transition, so really, give yourself grace- all the grace that you need. Cry, journal, and when the sadness wanes, brainstorm and dream about what you are going to do in this new season. ((BIG HUGS)) to you during this time.

  18. My daughter is on her 4th year of college and my son just started his first year. They’re both 45 minutes away at the same school and I just got a job there. Although the tuition break is great, my kids aren’t 100% pleased I’m there. My daughter was but then I started calling, texting and dropping by too much and now she beginning to resent me working there. My son was never crazy about it because I homeschooled him and also worked at his elementary/junior high private school.
    I think I drove my daughter crazy trying so hard to let me son go. We were so close when she was home. But she’s getting ready to be engaged and married so she’s breaking away more. Understandable. I’ve seriously got to chill out and stop being such a needy mom for heaven’s sake. It’s been so hard – hard when she left and hard again now that he’s gone.
    They’re both great kids making great choices, I have so much to be thankful for! I just miss them. Praying over them and for me to grow as well.

    1. I applaud you for thinking creatively about paying for college! Maybe you could set a weekly date to eat lunch with your daughter and then agree to limit calls and texts to so many for the rest of the week? I totally get missing your kids- this is a really difficult transition time for us moms, is it not?

  19. What can I say? Where did the time go? I’m not ready yet. I need more time. I didn’t think this would feel this bad.
    Just yesterday I was walking her to to elementary school, and I was her best friend. Now she is a young lady (although I only see her as a young child). Yesterday while talking to her (and trying not to cry or act sad) I was trying to see her true age (17), and although i caught glimpses of a young lady what i mostly saw was the child that I’ve had so much fun raising. I’m going to miss her.
    She doesn’t start college until after summer of 2024, but I’m already sooo sad. I thought these days of her being little would never end. She has already earned multiple full ride scholarships so our days together are literally numbered. I’m going to miss her.
    The sun sets even in paradise. An era is ending as she is my only child.

    I am going to miss her. Love, Dad

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