- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 13, 2005

About 300 parents pack an auditorium at the University of Maryland at College Park. Their arms are full of booklets and handouts, and their faces show worried expressions. Sharon Kirkland-Gordon, a university guidance counselor, is giving them tips on how to deal with their child’s departure to college.

“You will be feeling two conflicting emotions,” Ms. Kirkland-Gordon says. She describes the feelings of excitement and joy for the child who is beginning a new life phase. But there’s also the “feeling of terror,” she says, that comes with letting the child go for the first time.

There come the questions of “Can they make it on their own?” and “Will they be OK without me?” Ms. Kirkland-Gordon says.

While most people realize that the transition to college is difficult for the student, many forget how taxing it can be for the parent. When a child leaves home, many parents are left with feelings of loss, emptiness and loneliness, school counselors say.

Joan Gruber, a Livingston, N.J., parent at the orientation session, says she is extremely sad that her two sons, Steven and Adam, are leaving for school this year. (They were born less than a year apart, she says.)

Steven is entering the Robert H. Smith School of Business at the College Park campus, while Adam will attend the Universal Technical Institute outside of Philadelphia.

Mrs. Gruber, a retired dyslexia educator, says it first hit her during their high school graduation that her sons are moving away.

“I was there at graduation, and I remembered back when they were so little I held them in my hand,” she says. “I just started to cry.”

The reaction is hardly unusual, says Akira Otani, senior staff psychologist at the university’s Counseling Center. Many parents underestimate how much they’ll be affected by a child’s departure, he says.

Mr. Otani says the saddest time is usually when the last child or an only child goes away to school. This creates an “empty nest effect” for the parents, he says.

“When the first one goes, [they think] ‘It’s sad, but we still have this one,’” Mr. Otani says. “When the last child leaves home, ‘It’s back to me and you.’”

It’s hard to predict the consequences of an empty nest. For some parents, it’s a time to reconnect and rekindle their relationship. Others realize that without the child acting as a buffer, they don’t get along as well as they thought.

Mr. Otani says the two most common times for divorce are after four years of marriage and after the last child leaves home.

Madge Lawrence Treeger, a former counselor at Washington University in St. Louis and co-author of “Letting Go: A Parents’ Guide to Understanding the College Years,” says the best way for a parent to gauge his or her reaction to a child leaving home is to think back to similar experiences, such as dropping the child off at kindergarten for the first time.

“Think back to what major transitions have been like for you and your child, and how you managed other transitions and separations, and what worked and didn’t work,” she suggests.

Ms. Treeger says the hardest part of letting go is being sure the child will succeed on his or her own.

She says parents worry about relinquishing day-to-day control and letting their child face challenges such as sex and drugs alone.

Once the child is gone, school counselors (in both high school and college) agree that the best way to soften the blow is to acknowledge the difficulty of the transition and to keep busy.

“Finding new and exciting interests of your own so your own life is rich and interesting will definitely alleviate some of that anxiety,” Ms. Treeger says.

School counselors also stress that parents should maintain a healthy contact with the child. “Healthy” proves to be the most difficult part of the equation. Many parents either give the child too much or too little freedom. Calling multiple times a day is unnecessary, but completely cutting off contact also is hurtful, they say.

Ms. Treeger suggests that parents speak to their child a couple of times a week. Parents should be distant enough to let the child solve his or her own problems but close enough to offer advice if the child needs it, she says.

Mrs. Gruber says she plans to keep busy once her children move away by tutoring dyslexic children and working with the Literacy Volunteers of America, a nonprofit group.

“At first it’s going to be sad, but people have said you get used to it,” she says.

Mrs. Gruber’s husband, Charlie, has a different attitude. He laughs at the thought of being sad when his sons leave for college.

“We’re not losing them,” he says. “They’re just going into another stage of life. They’re growing up.”

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