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Help the Younger Siblings When Older Teens Go to College

When we returned home from dropping off the oldest of my three children at college, I was physically and emotionally exhausted. Just before I crawled under my covers to go to sleep, I went into my seven-year-old son’s room to tuck him in for the night.

From the doorway, I could hear faint sobbing. I walked over to my young son’s bed, and while brushing the hair out of his eyes asked, “What’s wrong Bud?”

He replied, “Oh Mommy! It’s never going to be the same around here again.”

Adjusting to a Kid at College: New Family Dynamic

My heart immediately broke for my little guy. I spent the last few months preparing my daughter as well as myself for her departure. I didn’t realize the impact it would have on her siblings.

While I wanted to reassure him that his world wasn’t changing, I couldn’t do it. He was right. Nothing would ever be the same again. We all needed to adjust to this new family living situation.

As the youngest, he never knew a home without his two sisters by his side. It was going to be different for all of us.

When a child moves out, it does change the dynamic in the home and the way everyone relates to one another. It takes a little effort but you can still remain connected.

How to Cope with the Change When a Sibling Leaves for College

Here are some ideas to smooth the transition for younger brothers and sisters that worked for my family:

1. Accept that it may be hard, especially at first.

About a week after my daughter went to college, it was my son’s birthday. We set up a Skype time so everyone could sing to him together. It was an epic fail.

My daughter saw his face and immediately began to cry. In the midst of trying to adjust to her new surroundings, this reminder of what she was missing was too much for her. She abruptly hung up, and my son’s feelings were hurt. He didn’t understand and felt like she wasn’t interested in celebrating his birthday.

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It’s important to give everyone the time they need to get used to the new normal. For the first few weeks, it was difficult for my three kids to talk or Skype with each other without becoming emotional, so we encouraged texting instead. Once she settled in and my younger children adjusted to their life without their big sister, we set up regular Skypes.

2. Keep the family connected.

After the initial shock wore off, keeping my kids connected became the goal. When my second daughter left the nest, the older girls complained that my son didn’t want to talk on the phone much or only offered one-word answers to their questions.

I figured out it wasn’t so much that my son didn’t want to talk, but instead the topic of the conversation. If you asked him to discuss football stats, he has plenty to say. So, we set up a Family Fantasy Football league. Discussions about player trades often would lead to conversations about friends, school or other things that were on his mind

We also started competing in the “HQ” quiz game app. Although we play in different corners of the world, we often discuss the questions and our scores together. Continuing to find a common denominator has kept my kids bonded together.

3. Choose communication that feels natural.

Some families like having a scheduled time for siblings to speak to each other. But for others, a set time can be stressful or feel forced. My kids mostly reach out to each other when they have something to say; however, if it’s been a while, I will lightly nudge them to reach out. What I came to realize, however, is that it doesn’t always need to be a voice or Skype call. Remain flexible on what it means for siblings to “talk” to one another;  a text or SnapChat can be great tools for kids to say connected.

4. Avoid being a “go-between.”

When my daughter first left for college, I would speak to her frequently and let her know everything that was going on at home. I would then relay our conversations to her father and siblings, so they were updated.

While this type of communication kept everyone informed, it also robbed family members of having individual connections. Instead of acting as a “go-between” for your family, encourage communication between each member. Say something like: “Your brother has some big news he wants to share with you. Call him.” When you allow the story to come directly from the source, there is always an opportunity for more discussion.

5. Share the small stuff.

Encourage your children to discuss little things, like what they had for breakfast or the funny thing a teacher did.  Talking about these small details that they used to share helps make them feel more a part of each other’s lives. My kids especially love to bond over mocking things that my husband or I do. If laughing at their parents together keeps my kids connected, I’ll take it.

Most important, remember all families are different and interact in different ways. Don’t get concerned if initially your children don’t talk as much or refuse to Facetime. Instead, focus on communicating in ways that work best for keeping your own unique family connected.

Randi Mazzella is a freelance writer specializing in parenting, midlife issues, and family life. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications including The Washington Post, The Fine Line and The Girlfriend. She is a frequent contributor to Your Teen for Parents. Follow her on Twitter or Facebook.

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