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Leaving the Nest

Student Moving By Steven A. Maybell, Director of SPU's Student Counseling Center and Adjunct Professor in SPU's Marriage and Family Therapy Graduate Program

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Every year during Welcome Week, as students transition into college and away from home (often for the first time), their families and friends begin a different journey. What I appreciate about Welcome Week is how it encourages students, parents, families, and friends to interact with those going through similar experiences on this journey — students with students, and parents with parents — and as an entire group.

One of the key events during Welcome Week — in fact, the last event for parents and their children (and likely the most emotional) — is Friday's goodbye celebration in Tiffany Loop. While your student's journey continues through the weekend with Welcome Week activities, you are left with the experience of saying goodbye for now to your student who is "leaving the nest."

As a parent, I found this to be one of the most emotionally painful of all of my experiences with my kids. To honor this important milestone, a couple of hours before the goodbye celebration I help to lead an event for parents, family members, and loved ones called "Leaving the Nest." The following information is taken from that session; check the Welcome Week schedule for more details.

Loss and Grief

Parents and student

I've learned that in most cases it is the one being left behind that suffers more than the one leaving. That would be you. It's important to know that it is absolutely "normal" to feel sadness — often profound sadness — at this time. It's part of healthy human relationships, and a sign that you have a heart, that you care.

Your task is not to deny your grief, or to let others talk you out of it. I've come to believe the following: You may try to run from sorrow, but sorrow will find you. Your task is to embrace your grief, accept it as a part of life right now, and find a way to work through it — such as by writing about it in a journal, by expressing it to others who you trust to just listen, or by praying.

You'll find that over time, while the change and the loss remain permanent, the grief subsides.

The Gift of Responsibility

I've learned that a hug is not a hug unless we let go. Otherwise the "hug" can become a confining prison. When this occurs, our kids have two choices: to continue to let mom or dad to make life work for them, or to aggressively pull away in order to move their lives forward.

If students allow parents to continue to manage their life, the students rarely develop the "psychological muscle" it will take to manage life on their own. If they fight against our holding on, then they can become distant from us to the point of estrangement — and lose a vital source of support and a place of permanent belonging and love as their life moves forward.

Many parents are afraid of letting go during this transition out of fear that their children may fail without their regular involvement. And yes, it's likely that your kids may falter a bit as they test out their new wings. Yet it's vital to know that as parents we can't teach responsibility in the same way we teach knowledge or skills. Responsibility — the sense that my life is in my hands and unless I take ownership of it and work to move my life forward myself, nothing will happen — can only be given by the parent to the child.

We can't help our kids grow up, unless we let them grow up. After all, out of mistakes comes wisdom. So give your kids the most loving gift imaginable: the gift of responsibility.

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Recommended Resources

Is your son or daughter headed to college? Here are three resources to help you during this transition.

Letting Go: A Parent's Guide to Understanding the College Years (fourth edition), by Karen Levin Coburn and Madge Lawrence Treeger, Quill Publishers, 2003.

Parent's Guide to College Life, by Robin Raskin, Princeton Review, 2006.

The College Parents of America website. It's designed to assist parents all the way through the process, including the importance of the high school years; applying for college; the transition to college and the parent's role; challenges throughout the college years; and after college.

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