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The College Drop-off and the Long Drive Home

As Oscar Hammerstein wrote in Showboat (1927), “Fish gotta swim, birds gotta fly.” And kids gotta leave. Somewhere around a child’s 18th or 19th birthday, there is a monumental shift in family life. The kid who has been making us proud (or not), who has been surprising us, delighting us, disappointing us, making us sad, mad, and glad — in short, been part of the rhythm, harmonies, and general noise of family life, isn’t going to be there anymore. It’s a startling experience, particularly with the first child. Where did 18 or so years go?

Parents and Kids Have Different Feelings about Leaving Home

For most parents, the feelings are very mixed. There is joy and pride in the miracle of having raised this wonderful young adult. There are regrets for the plans and good intentions we never realized: the trip we didn’t get around to taking, the interest we didn’t manage to cultivate, the days we wished we had done better. There is worry about whether we have adequately prepared our child for what is to come. There may be anger about how difficult it has sometimes been as well as satisfaction about all we managed to accomplish in spite of the difficulties. There is even some relief. (A friend of mine maintains that the ninth month of pregnancy and the senior year of high school have something in common: As much as a mother may be nervous about the next step, it’s gotten so uncomfortable that you just want the kid out!)

Most 18-year-olds aren’t nearly as conflicted and emotional about all this as their parents. For the child, this is a time of looking forward to new freedoms, new adventures, and new possibilities — all beyond the watchful gaze of parents. Yes, they’ll miss us. Yes, they will still occasionally ask for advice, information, help, and money. But mostly they are focused on proving to themselves and to us that they can manage on their own, thank you very much!

Adjusting to Family Change Takes Time

As for us, the parents in the situation, we find ourselves facing a major gap in our family as we have known it for nearly two decades. Being “old,” we don’t adapt as easily as the kids. Being mature, we try to anyway. But there is no getting around the fact that when a child leaves, there are surprising and sometimes overwhelming feelings of loss. More than one parent has told me that she or he cried the entire four-hour drive home after dropping a child off at college.

All of these feelings are normal and even expected. For a child, growing up has been a process of looping back and forth between pushes for new independence and pulls back to gather know-how and reassurance for the next step forward. For a parent, raising a child has been a process of looping back and forth between encouraging independence and pulling back to reassure and support through love and advice. It’s an elaborate and practiced dance. Although our children certainly continue to need mentoring as they (and we) continue to get older, it will be on very different terms.

Coping Strategies for Parents

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Are there ways to make the transition go more smoothly? Certainly talking about it helps. In general, it’s a mistake to expect to talk about it much with your young adult child. Most kids this age get very impatient with us. Reach out instead to your spouse, your best friend, and your relatives, especially to the people who have shared in watching your child grow. People with children the same age are an especially helpful resource. There’s nothing so reassuring as finding out that others have many of the same feelings of excitement about what is ahead and nostalgia for what has been.

Find ways to keep your child in the family loop without being intrusive about it. Invite her or him to dinner. Arrange for a call or e-mail once a week. Make sure to continue including your child in family occasions and events. As much as they may complain about it, most kids feel terrible if they aren’t invited to the annual picnic or a family member’s birthday celebration. But here’s the most important thing: take “no” for an answer graciously. The point isn’t actually to get your child to come to every family event. The point is to let him or her know that he or she is still a part of the family and welcome to participate.

Remain Available and Open to Your Child

Especially during your child’s first few months away from home, find ways to make room for your child to tell you about his or her fears or confusions. Most will put the most positive face possible on their new life separate from you. They usually think that to do otherwise is to admit that they aren’t as independent as they think they should be. Let them know that they don’t need to pretend that everything is always “fine;” that you remember being their age and how up-and-down each day could be.

Don’t take it for granted that you know specifically what your child is dealing with, how your child feels, or the pressures he or she is experiencing. You don’t. We were 20 at least 20 years ago. The world really was different then. Just as we thought our parents couldn’t possibly understand the world we were living in, so, too, do our kids. Don’t assume — it’s better to ask.

Move Towards Being Adults “Together”

Work on changing some of the interactions you have with your children so that they have more opportunities to be on the giving end of information, support, and advice. Be interested in what they are learning at school, on the job, or in their new social circle. Ask for their opinions. Be active in working towards a new equality in your relationship.

During the years when our children are 18 to about 22, parents are doing an important and new piece of parenting: we are redefining our roles with our children and negotiating with them just how we are all going to be adults together. Watching and supporting our children as they move into this new life stage can be just as exciting and rewarding as when we watched and supported their first steps so many years ago.

The College Drop-off and the Long Drive Home

Marie Hartwell-Walker, Ed.D.

Marie Hartwell-WalkerDr. Marie Hartwell-Walker is licensed as both a psychologist and marriage and family counselor. She specializes in couples and family therapy and parent education. She writes regularly for Psych Central as well as Psych Central's Ask the Therapist feature. She is author of the insightful parenting e-book, Tending the Family Heart.

Check out her book, Unlocking the Secrets of Self-Esteem.

APA Reference
Hartwell-Walker, M. (2020). The College Drop-off and the Long Drive Home. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 6, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 14 Jan 2020 (Originally: 17 May 2016)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 14 Jan 2020
Published on Psych All rights reserved.