Kids Going to College: Getting Your Heart and Head Ready

Parenthood has two big transitions, when our children arrive and when they leave. Mary Dell and I managed the first and, with our older sons, we have faced the second. Now we face our youngest kids going to college, a moment we have looked forward to and dreaded for almost two decades.

Tips from experienced parents on getting your kids and yourself ready for college

A year ago when we considered this topic we were struck by the real wisdom offered by  Marshall P. Duke, Professor at Emory University in this wonderful piece he wrote for The Huffington Post.

“It is a moment that comes along once in a lifetime. Each child only starts college once. …Such moments are rare. They have power. They give us as parents one-time opportunities to say things to our children that will stick with them not only because of what is said, but because of when it is said.

Here is what I tell the parents: think of what you want to tell your children when you finally take leave of them and they go off to their dorm and the beginning of their new chapter in life and you set out for the slightly emptier house that you will now live in. What thoughts, feelings and advice do you want to stick? “Always make your bed!”? “Don’t wear your hair that way!”? Surely not. This is a moment to tell them the big things. Things you feel about them as children, as people. Wise things. Things that have guided you in your life. Ways that you hope they will live. Ways that you hope they will be. Big things. Life-level things.”

Professor Duke suggests a letter, that I did not write, to impart to  your now independent child all the important things you want them to know.  The perfect letter from parent to child will not be deleted but kept and the message absorbed.

When I read his exceptional piece and all I could think was, “I blew it.”  I have sent two sons off to college without any attention to the profound.  I was saddened  for the missed opportunity and hoped I might be redeemed with my third and final opportunity when my youngest son goes to college.

And then I read the very wise professor more carefully (as I urge you to.)  Our children will, hopefully, cross many important thresholds in their young adulthood.  There will be first jobs and real loves.  There will be engagements and marriages.  They will face heart-wrenching disappointments and the joys of parenthood. At each of these moments, if and when they occur, we have a chance to quietly offer our thoughts to be accepted or rejected, but to be heard.

For many of us, the milestone moment on the horizon is our kids going to college. While Professor Duke offers advice for the heart, here are practical suggestions from BTDT* moms.

Off to College:

Last year we asked a group of very experienced moms to share their collective wisdom on saying goodbye to the kids going to college. Their advice spans the gamut from the very practical to the very personal, from the trivial to the monumental.  Other friends, the authors of the great book College Admission: From Application to Acceptance, offer professional advice

In the end, our job as parents is to leave them with both the right size sheets and a sense that they are well equipped for this next, independent stage of life.  The challenges are no greater or lesser than when they arrived eighteen years ago.

How to Get All this Done:

If you haven’t already gotten a reservation at a hotel for drop offs, visiting days, and graduation you are probably too late. Reserve as soon as they make their college decision.

In all the excitement of move-in day, remember to eat.  A day full of packing and unpacking can go south very quickly when it’s suddenly 4pm and energy levels are low (nobody wants a meltdown in front of their new roommate!)

Have some practice sessions doing laundry at home before attempting this daring task for the first time at school.  And yes, bringing a cheat sheet along is just fine.  To the parents whose children have conned them into paying for University laundry service (as mine did) – when they complain about the laundry service losing or ruining their clothing, remind them that they could do it themselves.

Tell them to take everything out of their pockets when they do their laundry, ink stains do not enhance any clothing item.

When they return for the summer designate a place in your house for all the “stuff” that comes home and will go right back in the fall….otherwise with multiple kids it gets lost among your other things as they dump stuff all over the house.

What they might need:

You know the basics but here are a few extras.

You can buy a hand vac and cleaning materials but they will never use them.  It is for you to use when you visit.

First thing to buy is a mattress cover to keep bed bugs out.  It zips the mattress in and you have no worries, at least about bed bugs.

Register at The Container Store to pick up at the location nearest to their dorm.  Over register for items because you don’t have to buy everything you picked out.  It is just conveniently waiting for you on site if you want to make the purchase.

Buy earphones in case a roommate is listening to music or only goes to sleep with the TV on.

Bring a simple tool kit, a hammer, screwdriver and the like. it will be borrowed a lot.

Above all, be healthy:

The first time one of my kids got sick freshman year, I wished I had sent throat lozenges, pain reliever and a thermometer.  And, also thought about asking my daughter to sign a health release form so that I could talk with the infirmary nurse.

Find  the closest 24 hour pharmacy…not just for setting your daughter up but in case she needs something in the middle of the night. At 3 am when she needs a pharmacy, you and she will be glad you located it in advance.

College health centers might be limited, so ask other parents whose kids are older or residents of the town your child will be in…..having a great internist available when your kid is really sick and far from home is very helpful.  Don’t forget to fax their health records to get them established long before your child might need the help.

Best Advice for getting your kid ready for college. Experts share how to get your head and heart ready for move-in to the college dorm

Tech Support:

Get TWO flash drives to back up the computer. Nothing worse than a call at 2 am telling you their computer crashed with their 20 page paper on it!

Try to get contact info for the university tech help center – the wireless printers NEVER work on move in day.  And we were never able to locate anyone to help.

They really only need one printer/room.  So all of those free printers that come along with the new mac you’ll be buying for college?  Take the cash instead if one of the roommates is bringing a wireless printer

Set up find my phone/iPad/iMac – sadly, you will probably need to use it.

And most important, Mom and Dad Support:

Don’t project your angst. They have enough on their minds with new roommates and surroundings. The details, in time, will take care of themselves.

Take their lead – even though you have more experience – this is their moment.

Put your need to be needed second to their need to find their own way.

It doesn’t all have to be done perfectly – even if it’s easier. This is their turn to figure out how they like their room to look, how to arrange their books…don’t take that away from them.

Try not to worry too much…and don’t keep calling. You might even ask how often they would like to speak at the beginning.

Be prepared for random phone calls and then quick hang ups.  These will come mostly from girls who are walking alone across campus, and don’t like to “walk alone.”  Therefore, you become their walking buddy.  As soon as they reach their destination or bump into a friend, expect the “gotta go now.”  Take whatever you can get, though.

Send cards/notes/newspaper articles – via postal service.

And, finally, plan a fun activity for yourself the day after you send or drop your child off so that you don’t notice how quiet the house is.

*BTDT – been there, done that



  1. says

    And having sent off all three of my own kids, I would add one more bit of advice:
    Allow yourself to crash after they leave (after the first, after the second, after the last…..). You’ll finally have more time for yourself, but you might with that you didn’t have so much of it. Be sad, don’t fight it. Go with it, go through it. Your child has taken a very big step; so have you!

  2. says

    Love the idea of a letter. Didn’t do that. In fact, because I was a artist with a gallery, I needed to ge back to painting. It made the empty house fuller. I had a harder time leaving the grandkids. That ripped my heart. But I di get to see the about once a month so that fillsme with joy.

    • says

      I am sure that having your wonderful painting to return to made all the difference in the world – exactly why we started G&F.

  3. says

    I didn’t do the letter thing either. My youngest son is in college – in Germany. One daughter is pregnant with twins. One daughter is single, living in Alaska and getting her pilot’s license. One son is finally, after 10 years of post-high school bartending, going back to college to get a nursing degree. So they run the gamut. And I’m thinking a letter from Mom would still be a good thing. I’m 55 and my mother is 81 and I’m thinking I’d still appreciate and glean much from a letter from her. Are we ever too old to get a letter from Mom or Dad sharing some wisdom and love and support? I don’t think so. Great post!

    • says

      A hand-written letter is such a rare piece of mail in the mail box that it is always special. Heartfelt words from mom is something I hope our kids would value, especially at these milestones your children (and ours) face now in their lives. thanks, Barb

  4. says

    You’ve covered this topic very thoroughly, Lisa, from all the emotions to the practical tips. As each child heads out of the house and off to college, the family goes through another transition. As parents, we need to embrace the moment and remind ourselves that this is what we’ve been working for during the past 18 years of childrearing.

    Thanks for another great post.

    • says

      Thanks, Anne, we had much help from other moms who have dropped kids off at freshmen dorms, multiple times!

  5. says

    Excellent piece. Won’t apply to me directly for a few more years, but it does get me thinking that I don’t need to wait to start imparting bigger ideas than simply, “Brush your hair please.” I may try to sneak in something more profound when opportunity strikes.

    • says

      We all get bogged down in the day-to-day with our kids. Taking the time to write a heartfelt letter has become much less common with the expediency of texting, emailing. Let’s bring it back!

  6. happy outlook says

    Great list! Even now with freshman year behind us, I try to plan something fun to do the day after drop off – to keep my mind off the empty house. I also found that sometimes sending the kids back after the winter break was harder than in the fall when everything was new and exciting. Tried to have a campus visit on the calendar to look forward to.

    • says

      That’s true about how much more exciting the fall semester is and how dreary an empty house can be in January, post-holidays Will watch for that one when my time comes. Thanks!

  7. Carpool Goddess says

    I sent my oldest off with an arsenal of over-the-counter meds and cleaning supplies. Pretty sure neither were actually used. But I felt better doing so. Now that my “baby” is going back for her sophomore year, I’m relaxing a bit. Even I’m tired of hearing myself lecture, I mean, speak 😉

    • says

      We want them to be prepared for any and all emergencies since we are not there to take care of them. I did exactly the same thing but will learn from my mistakes when it is time to drop off our youngest….at least, I hope to learn from my mistakes!

  8. says

    The Freshman drop off was an emotional nightmare. Sophomore year we were lucky she gave us time to stop the car before she jumped out ready to take on the year. This year she will be driving herself back to school. She is counting the days down to her departure leaving us in the dust. I can’t imagine what her Senior year will be like…maybe she won’t even come home. My son will be commuting since he enjoys having a personal assistant at his beck and call (a/k/a me).
    I always send my daughter encouraging cards and my mother writes her letters filling her in on everything. When I go to visit her walls are covered in our messages surrounding her with out love. That soothes this soul!

    • says

      How lovely that your very independent daughter has your messages on her walls. Would melt my heart seeing that and I bet it does yours.

  9. says

    Thanks for all the wonderful advice. My eldest will be leaving for college in 4 weeks and it all rings true.

  10. says

    seems like only yesterday. great post – passing on what we’ve learned along the way.

  11. says

    Turn their bedroom into a room of your own….I loved the empty nest! Now that they’re in their late 30’s I want them to come home….I love their company!

  12. Shoremom says

    My youngest left for college this past week. For the first time in 21 years( my oldest is a senior in college) I regretted parenthood. When you have a baby , your life changes for the better. As you watch your children grow, you have the highest hopes and dreams for them. Before you know it, they are getting ready to leave for college. When my oldest left three years ago, I was extremely sad ( happy for her) but I still had my “little one.” The gut wrenching pain I felt this past week was way worse than any labor pains. A part of me is missing. i feel as if my purpose in life is now over. My house is so quiet. I hope it gets better soon.

    • says

      One of the reasons that we started this blog was because we were finding the journey to the empty nest quite painful. We are here with you and truly understand how this transition can be so painful. So glad that you found us and cannot tell you how much we appreciate your comments.

    • One and Only says

      I’m already feeling your pain. I have one child, his father passed a few years ago. I am absolutely dreading when he leaves next fall (yes, he hasn’t even left yet). I’ve been preparing for year, went back to school, plan to have a career. Yet all I think is how much I’ll miss him. I am very concerned I’ll become depressed and won’t be able to snap out of it. I was able to deal with my husband’s sudden passing because I had to raise our son. I should be happy that my son has been accepted into a great school and that he’s doing so well — but I can’t take my mind off of being without him. OK – enough from me. Yes, I need a life.

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