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letting go when your kids leave for college

Alex and Sara on kitchen counter

Our nest has been empty for half a dozen years — yes, that picture, above, was taken a long time ago — but every time September approaches, I get nostalgic about back to school time. I wish I was still making trips to the store with my kids for notebooks and pens and backpacks, and sharing their anticipation about their new teachers and which of their friends would be in their classes.

Those Septembers come and go shockingly fast, though, and suddenly, instead of dropping your little boy off at preschool, you’re leaving a young man who’s taller than you in a strange room three thousand miles away. Instead of kissing your little girl goodbye for the day, you’re kissing her goodbye for who knows how long.

I think there are few moments in a parent’s life as emotional as sending a child off to college.

It’s such a turning point — for both of you. And it is so painful to let go.

Here a few tips for making the transition a little easier:

Don’t get overly emotional in front of them. Yeah, good luck with this one. I didn’t want my kids to worry about me being a wreck without them, so I took on the role of head cheerleader the summer before each of them started college. Every time I said, “I’m going to miss you,” I would quickly add, “but you are going to have the best time! You’re going to LOVE college!” Rah rah rah! When Michael and I left our firstborn at college, we all had tears in our eyes but I knew I had to hold it together. We hugged, told him — cheerfully — we’d see him at Thanksgiving, and watched him walk to his first college meeting. And then, once he was out of sight, I sobbed like a baby — like the baby I no longer had. Lest you think this gets easier, I did the same thing two years later when we dropped off our daughter.

Alex dropping off at Georgetown

Teach them basic skills. If they’ve never done laundry before, make them do it now! If they don’t have their own bank account, open one and show them how to use it. If they don’t have their own credit card, get them one, set limits and talk about the importance of budgeting and paying bills on time. You will feel better if you know they can be independent and will always — like our own mothers taught us — have on clean underwear.

Take your cues from them. Some kids can’t wait to leave the nest, others are nervous. Give them the chance to express those fears if they want to — and then listen to them. They don’t want to be preached to; they just need to know you’ll still be there for them when they need you. And, when they do, they’ll call you. Don’t call and text them and email them endlessly. After forwarding my son one too many articles I was sure he would find useful, he replied, “Unsubscribe.”

Stay busy. Plan a vacation, start a new project, take a class yourself. This is important because you don’t want to sit around waiting for your kids to call you. That’s what cell phones are for. They will call you. Or, more likely, text you. You definitely don’t want to spend your time finding reasons to call them. You need to stay distracted so you don’t convince yourself your life is over and your kids no longer need you. Motherhood is not a job with term limits.

Sara - Tufts diploma

Remind yourself this was the goal all along. Really, sending your child off to college, to be their own person and start their own life, is what you’ve been working toward since you gave birth. So celebrate your success — and theirs. And remember the quote, “There are two gifts we should give our children. One is roots. And the other is wings.”

Thanks to Michelin for sponsoring this post.

Do you have a student headed off to college? Be there, no matter where they go. Read more stories from parents like me on BeThereMoments.com. And join the conversation by using the hashtag #BeThereMoments


  1. Good advice — as a college instructor, too many parents are helicopter parents and feel the need to DO everything for their college student. Let them learn independence…

  2. I love this because I’ve worked on the flipside. I spent time employed by a couple of different colleges working in their new student programs offices and trying to get the same children to spread their wings and become adults!

  3. Great advice. Especially this month, as parents are getting ready to drop off kids at college!

  4. OMG don’t even get me started. When we left our youngest at university, my husband and I cried all the way home.

  5. Such great advice. I remember when I was a freshman my mom cried. I didn’t understand it at the time but now I do. My oldest is 7 so I’m happy we have time.

  6. My kids have both been very independent. My daughter worked since she was 16 because she wanted to. My son joined the Air Force. She went to college nearby but paid for and maintained her own apartment. My son went to Japan for 2 years. Thank goodness for Skype.

  7. It can be a very emotional time especially if your children are moving away. However, they have to ‘fly the nest’ at some point and you can take comfort in knowing you have brought them up to be wonderful people. Now is your time!

  8. I never expected our son to commute to school. The one semester he was away my heart was heavy. Then he transferred and I silently was happy. Yet, he was NEVER home!

    Now he’s about to start grad schooland he’ll be commuting, and working, and I know I’ll only see him at night if I’m up late.

    I know it’s not the same as him being away like your kids. I do miss going to buy school supplies and the sound of the school bus makes me teary eyed. Sigh. Can we do it all over again, please? xo

  9. Fabulous advice. One of the most heart wrenching things I ever did was drive away from the college my husband and I transported our middle daughter to, seven hours away. We watched her muster her courage and head to the “freshman social,” trying not to cry, trying to pretend she’ll be social in a room where she knew no one. Jim and I BAWLED our eyes out for probably the first 50 miles. All turned out well, though. She and the fab guy she met that first week just celebrated their 10th wedding anniversary. 😀

  10. My daughter was an only child and she was homeschooled. It was so hard for me to let go! She was excited to go to college and scared also. Luckily we were only 2 hours away from her for her Freshman and Sophomore year. You have shared some great tips here. I agree with you that we all want what is best for our children and sending them off to college is our goal.

  11. I just finished a post for tomorrow about teaching them how to do their laundry.
    I was so lucky all of my kids attended great schools close by but I was still devastated when they moved out and terrified when my son went into the Army.
    It’s sad for me now when school starts. We spend a lot of time with grandkids during the summer and rarely see them during the school year because they are so busy with sports, dance, music etc…
    It’s hard not to get emotional thinking about my own kids being so excited every year on the first day of school. I always cried, every single year.

  12. My babies are all still very young, but I know the time is going to fly by. I love your advice.

  13. Oh wow, I am not looking forward to this happening! I know it is our jobs as parents to get our kids ready for the world, and them making their own way in life. I just know how quick it will all go. My youngest starts kindergarten this fall and even that is blowing my min. These are great tips!

  14. I’ve got several friends going through this now. It’s harder than I thought it would be for them.

  15. I’m doing a series on parenting this month and this is EXACTLY how to parent in a way that lets your children find their independence without everyone being upset over the empty nest. I love that our kids have made their way in the world and we aren’t moping about it (well not often!)

  16. ahhhh man I dread this day and it will be here before I know it. I still have a few years but it will be so hard on me as I only have one kid. 😉

  17. It’s scary that summer is ending and school is right around the corner. We have Grandchildren and the oldest is going into High School. It seems like she was just 4 years old! Time Flies. You have great tips here – I’ll need them sooner than I want to think about.

  18. Oh, thank you so much for your advice! You definitely have to be ready during these times!

  19. Well, I blew the first one big time. I was a sobbing mess in front of them for weeks before they even left and months after. I’m pathetic. But I did start blogging then to keep myself busy.

  20. This will be me next year. I am having a hard time letting go(or preparing to let go). Thank you so much for sharing these tips!

  21. I’m having enough trouble imagining my son starting kindergarten in two years, and I’m really.. not good at letting go. I wasn’t when I started college either. I hope to learn a lot of wisdom before it happens for me! And be awesome and travel as much as you!

  22. Our goal is to raise productive citizens and send them on their way. It sure sounds easy, doesn’t it? Nope. Both my “boys” are young men on their own now. I’m thankful that they are both still close by. My youngest was 2000 miles away for a while and it was so difficult.

  23. This is excellent advice. My parents held onto my money growing up (as a control thing) so I never learned how to budget until I got out on my own and made a huge mess of my finances. Definitely teach them how to “adult” while they still have the safety net of living at home!

  24. Great tips! I found with each one that left the nest, it was easier, perhaps because I realized I would actually see them again… really soon! Plus, as you suggest, I looked at it as a job well done and dusted off my own dreams and other goals. I actually don’t miss back-to-school time!

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