Freshman Orientation – For Parents

Cleveland Plain Dealer
October 2, 2006

By Bill Lubinger

Darden Blake was emotionally braced to send her first child off to college. Or so she thought.

When she and her husband dropped off their daughter, Bailey, at Ohio Northern University last month, the freshman’s mom was overcome by a wave of sadness.

“It hit me like a truck,” said Blake, of Strongsville, who also has a high school sophomore and a seventh-grader at home. “And I was not expecting that. I thought I had worked through it.”

Weeks into the fall semester – with freshmen still adapting to the college experience – many parents are back home struggling with feelings as empty as the bedrooms their children left behind.

This moment, this transition, was 18 years in the making.

But like Blake, many don’t anticipate the separation anxiety – at least not to the depth that it hits them.

So many parents are asking themselves: “Am I normal?” “How long does the pain last?” “Why didn’t I see this coming?”

Relax. The tears, the emptiness, the disorientation – they’re part of college orientation, too.

“Think about it,” said Natalie Caine, who created Empty Nest Support Services in Los Angeles as she struggled with the adjustment. “You play this role for 18 years. I don’t think it just washes off in the shower.”

On the forum of her Web site (, parents comfort each other and share tips on how to cope. Even parents with children still at home – not empty-nesters, technically – often tussle with a profound sense of loss.

Again, quite normal.

“Everyone’s going through a transition,” Caine said, “including the dog, so compassion is a good idea.”

Teens have been leaving home for college since the first dorm was built. It’s the next stage toward adulthood. In fact, they are adults, legally anyway. So why are today’s parents feeling such angst?

Well, yesterday’s parents felt the pangs, too. They’re not new at all, said Linda Bips, an assistant psychology professor at Muhlenberg College and author of “Parenting College Freshmen: Consulting for Adulthood.”

The difference now, she said, is that parents have become continually more involved in their children’s lives. So the feelings of loss are greater when they leave, especially if it’s the last child or an only child. No more high school football games. No dance recitals. No band concerts.

“It was hard all of a sudden to see the [kids’] friends gone,” said Ruth Ridley of Aurora, the mother of four.

Two of her sons attend the University of Akron. Another son and daughter are still in high school, but the sense of loss was overwhelming.

Akron is practically Aurora Heights, but Ridley said she cried “at the drop of a hat” for a month after they moved into an apartment near school because it felt so final.

The Ridleys are already planning a cruise for when their fourth child – now a high school sophomore – heads off to college.

“I know I’ll need it,” she said.

Such feelings could be dismissed as a hovering mother’s inability to let go. Many college and high school counselors say that moms take the transition hardest.

“Devastated,” was the word Steven Roy Goodman, an educational consultant in Washington, D.C., chose to describe a typical reaction. Mothers usually devote more physical time with children, so, for them, the move represents a major shift in focus and lifestyle.

But moms hardly own the franchise on college separation anxiety.

What’s most surprised Caine since she created the empty nest support group was “the number of hurting men as well as women.”

“Sometimes fathers don’t expect it,” Bips said. “They’re almost shocked by it.”

Blake’s husband, Ben, said he’s handling the transition well because he actually started missing their daughter last January, during the college hunt. So when they dropped her off, it wasn’t traumatic for him.

“I mostly miss just having her sit right at the counter, doing her homework every night,” he said. “Not so much the verbal interaction, just her presence.”

He feels the twinge when vacuuming her empty bedroom and reaching down to empty her garbage can, which, of course, is always empty.

For now.

Parents, if it helps ease your pain, remember that stats show there’s a decent chance they will return soon enough, living at home for a while as college graduates.

Anxious for that?

<< Back to Steve in the News