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Are You Emotionally Prepared for College Drop-Off?

Marybeth Bock, MPH

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It doesn’t matter if it’s your first time or your third — it’s hard to prepare yourself emotionally for the day when you leave your child in that small dorm room and walk away without them.

New students and families can find all sorts of advice about what to do, buy and pack for college move-in. Schools send out detailed lists of what to bring and what to leave behind.

It can be easy over the summer to get consumed with finding the perfect bedding, stocking the safest first-aid kit, and acquiring a mini-fridge that doesn’t take up too much space. The focus on planning, shopping and transporting all these items can become an excuse to put off thinking about this monumental Letting Go (so much bigger and much scarier than preschool, kindergarten or sleep-away camp drop-off).

No matter how excited and proud we are of our kids, and how mature they might seem, leaving them to start life on their own is a seismic shift in a family’s timeline and in each unique parent-child relationship. It's an act of faith to step back from all those years we spent parenting them while they lived and learned under our roof. Their bubble of lived experience is about to burst wide open.

Drop-off is an emotional day.

I thought I was prepared the first time around.

Now I look back and chuckle at that misguided swagger. I thought walking away would be somewhat easy because, on paper, everything seemed fantastic. The campus was beautiful, the dorm was lovely, the room was decorated so cute, and my daughter was excited to immerse herself in a completely new environment.

But when it was time to say that final goodbye, it didn’t matter that we all loved the idea of her being there, or that she'd found a colorful tapestry for her wall that matched her comforter perfectly. It didn’t matter that her roommate seemed nice or that the shoe organizer we'd found was the ideal height for her closet.

What mattered was that we were driving away without her. That she’d be 2,200 miles away from us and from everything that was comfortable and routine. Her brother, her dog, her room, her city, her friends.

I saw that reality hit her and then it hit me, her mother, twice as hard. Words stopped, tears flowed, and my heart broke a little as we sat in that rental car, in that dorm parking lot, on that charming campus, in that humid city, hugging and not wanting to let go.

I’ve thought about that day, and wondered if I could have prepared myself better.

If I could relive that first college drop-off, here’s what I’d do differently.

1. I wish I'd placed less emphasis on things and more emphasis on feelings. I can now readily admit that I spent too much time making lists, finding coupons, and going to multiple stores in two separate states to try to ensure that my student would have everything she needed.

2. I wish we'd talked ahead of time about how to navigate the intensity of saying goodbye and separating. If you'll be doing your first college drop-off this fall, open a dialogue with your child. Pose some questions:

  • “How do you think it will actually feel to say goodbye?”
  • “How might you react if I seem really upset and sad?”
  • “Is there anything you’d like me to say or not to say if you're sad when we leave each other?”
  • “Where would you like us to say our goodbye?”

3. I wish I'd talked to other parents about their drop-off experiences. Specifically about how long it took them to get over any sadness they felt. It would have been immensely helpful to know going into it that I’d move through the extreme sadness of that day quickly. In the moment, I imagined that raw sadness would last.

4. I wish I'd known that for weeks, random little things would make me mist up. Like seeing the spotless carpet in my daughter’s room without any clothes or shoes scattered about. Or turning a corner in the grocery store and glancing up to see her favorite bottle of salad dressing.

5. I wish I'd understood in advance that contradictory emotions are extremely normal on college drop-off day. You can feel confident that your child has the maturity and life skills to rise to the challenges they'll face their freshman year, and at the same time feel anxious about them making friends or engaging in risky behaviors. You can feel that they are in the right place for them, yet still be wary about them being so far away, or maybe a little too close to home, or possibly feeling homesick or lonely.

So parents, remember these things about college drop-off day:

  • It’s usually a long and physically demanding day.
  • It’s always an emotionally demanding day.
  • All emotions are normal — particularly conflicting emotions.
  • You are likely to move through the sadness quickly, but random emotional gut punches may hit when you least expect them.
  • Keep talking to friends who have done this before.
  • Take comfort in knowing that you and your student are going through an adjustment period that millions have successfully navigated and have come out of just fine.
  • You’ve launched a child out into the world. Go, you!
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Marybeth Bock, MPH, is Mom to two young adult students and one delightful hound dog. She has logged time as a military spouse, childbirth educator, college instructor and freelance writer. Marybeth has a bachelor's degree in psychology from UCLA and a master's in public health from San Jose State University. She lives in Arizona and thoroughly enjoys research and writing. You can find her work on multiple parenting sites and in two books.
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