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Dear Parents: The Transition to College Can Be Rough (And That’s Okay)

Scrolling through social media this weekend, it was impossible to miss the fact that this weekend was college drop off time. For millions of American teenagers, an exciting new phase of life is beginning. But for their parents who are going home to an empty house or a missing place at the dinner table, this phase can feel an awful lot like grief.

I get it, believe me. I’ve sent three kids to college. There is no getting around the fact that having your kids leave you just sucks. It doesn’t really help to have any other parent tell you how you “you’ll be fine by Thanksgiving” or that “they’re going to have so much fun.” And it’s even more difficult to be sanguine and feel like your kid is going to be fine if right now they’re homesick, not making friends, struggling to adapt to college life, or dealing with other college problems.

And while this is an emotionally wrenching period for you, the transition can be even harder for them. And I’m here to tell you that you don’t just wash your hands and surrender your parenting badge when you drive away from campus. For my kids, freshman year of college was a rocky couple of months when they needed more emotional support than probably any of us had anticipated.

When we dropped our first child off at college, it was not without some parental trepidation.

After 12 years of being all up in that kid’s business and dragging his exhausted, indifferent body over the high school graduation finish line, we told him he was on his own in college. We weren’t going to hover or shadow him online to check his grades.

Even though he said he understood and was ready for it, all that independence caught up with him pretty quickly. He had never been good about managing his time. His engineering curriculum was demanding and couldn’t be learned by just cramming the last weekend before the final. Then there was the transition from an all-boys Catholic high school to a big public university. And if he had had any experience in high school with alcohol and pot, well, it had been minimal, and he had been very successful hiding it from us.

After first semester, his grades were lackluster. But we weren’t overly concerned because at orientation, college administrators had warned us that this was a very normal pattern.

One day halfway through second semester, he called me out of the blue to tell me that he was sick of lying to us.

He was failing two classes. He’d been staying out late at parties, smoking pot with his roommate, and watching Netflix instead of going to class. He was going to lose his scholarship which required him to maintain a 3.4 GPA. He was despondent, and I had never heard his voice sound like that. He was really struggling in college. This was the biggest setback of his young life, and I didn’t want him to feel hopeless or do anything drastic. I took a deep breath, prayed silently for guidance, and told him that we loved him, and that there was no problem we couldn’t work through.

He did lose his scholarship. He had to repeat one class, and spent the next semester scrambling to make up for bad grades. It took him all of sophomore year to recover, but he got his GPA back up. I have never been prouder of him than the day he got off the phone with the Office of Student Affairs and told me with quiet pride that they had restored his scholarship. And here’s the thing I can only say with several years of runway behind us: It was an expensive lesson, but it was worth it. Our son had learned self-discipline, the pride that comes from success through hard work, some self-respect, and showed us—and himself—that he could handle adult responsibility. He graduated with a degree in mechanical engineering and is now launched and successfully employed.

The transition to college was difficult for our second child, too, but for different reasons.

She was going to college nine hours from home to a college where she didn’t know anyone. An introvert, she had a hard time making friends and didn’t click right away with anyone. She was anxious about literally everything: not making friends, what to wear, how the professors probably all thought she was stupid, and that every other student was smarter than she. It was emotionally gut-wrenching for the next three months to have her text me dozens of times a day about how miserable everything was.

Then slowly, things got better. The texts slowed down. She had a few friends from class, a study group, and a group of kids to go out with on Friday night. It took until probably second semester of freshman year before she sounded confident and happy on the phone.

And while I’m being completely honest, I’ll just also admit that her college experience never did turn out to be the “best four years of your life” that most kids anticipate. Now graduated, she has no regrets because her college experience set her up for getting her dream job. But I think it would’ve made her transition easier knowing that can take a while to adjust, and that it’s okay if you aren’t deliriously happy the entire time.

For most parents who are acutely feeling the grief of drop-off day, take heart knowing that every day will get a little easier for you. But for your kids, it might take a while. While you may wish you could save them the pain of being unhappy, friendless, and homesick, the truth is it’s a necessary developmental phase as they stop being children and start becoming adults. There is still plenty of parenting left ahead—it just might be from a distance now.

Jane Parent

Jane Parent is senior editor of Your Teen.