No “Right” Way to Feel When You Think About Your Kid Leaving Home

College send-off has been on the forefront of my mind lately. It’s been difficult to not think about it, what with emails arriving daily from stores touting all the latest dorm “must-haves,” the tearful TV commercials showing kids leaving home, and friends and family inquiring when college move-in day is.

The array of emotions that parents have when kids are leaving home

So many friends are sending kids off to college in the next month or so – many of them for the first time. Their texts, questions, and worries have become almost frantic at times.  As to be expected, there’s been the sharing of sentiments that run the emotional gamut:

I’m scared to death.

I’m so proud and excited.

I never want him to leave.

I can’t wait to say “Good-bye.”

And then comes the inevitable:

I feel horrible for that saying that.

I feel guilty that I’m not excited.

I probably shouldn’t feel that way.

As a mom going through all of this for the second time, I want to pass along just one piece of advice:

It is fine – no, it is more than fine – to feel any darn way that you are feeling.

It’s OK to be scared, ambivalent, overjoyed, sick-to-your-stomach anxious, happy, and annoyed. And it’s also OK to feel none of those things, or all those things – even in the span of a single day.

It is not OK to try to stop feeling what you are feeling – to bury and deny emotions that may have begun to consume you.

[Read Next: College Move-In Day: 12 Things That Will Save Your Life]

Recent research findings published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, demonstrate that accepting our negative emotions without judging them has been linked with greater psychological health.

The acceptance of negative emotions is undeniably a challenge in our culture. We live with the onslaught of pressure to look good and to feel good.  No one wants to be a “downer,” admitting to and talking about problems and fears. We’re far too often advised to “suck it up,” and to “look on the bright side.” We busy ourselves with the inconsequential – dorm decorations, perhaps? – to avoid feeling the anxiety of a child moving hundreds or thousands of miles away from us.

Sending a young adult off to college is a big deal for most families, yet many parents are made to feel less than if they express any fears or worry. Suppressing these emotions leads to rumination, which only perpetuates the negative thoughts. When we can accept our thoughts, and view them as the normal process of dealing with a significant life change, the mental experience runs its natural course, and fades in due time, which is usually rather quickly.

Whether you’re sending off your first-born, your baby, or your third of five kids to college, you will most likely be feeling some sort of negative emotion during the process. Try your best not to judge what you are feeling.  Many of us today, in our busy-ness, never even stop to acknowledge what exactly it is we are feeling. And when we consciously start to feel something “bad,” we unconsciously deal with it by distracting ourselves from the difficult reality. The “distractions” surrounding college are endless.

During your student’s send-off season, make it a priority to take a few minutes each day to be alone, quiet yourself, and disconnect from all distractions – electronic and human.  

Close your eyes, take some deep breaths, and be honest with whatever feelings you are experiencing. Are you attempting to deny certain thoughts while rushing around buying the perfectly sized storage bins?  Are you trying to push away feelings and tell yourself that you’ll deal with them later, after all the unpacking and driving away is over and done with?

Do not judge any negative emotion that you may begin to feel. That is the precise time to remember and repeat: It is what it is.  And here is the best advice I’ve ever heard on meditation which is what this quieting exercise is: View your thoughts and emotions as clouds passing you by. You see them, acknowledge them, and let them float past. We don’t judge clouds, and we should not judge our emotions – particularly the negative ones.

[Read Next: Empty Nest: When the Kids Leave Home, Who is the ME Left Behind?]

Major life changes are just that – major. We all have unique reactions and feelings whenever the balance of our home life shifts. Some people seem to glide through the college transition with ease, while others struggle for quite some time. An essential connection we once had with our child is changing forever. We may not be able to, or want to, stop this forward progression, but accepting all the feelings surrounding the event, will only lead to less negative emotion in our future.

Whatever it is that you are feeling during this time, acknowledge it and don’t accept being told that you’re being “ridiculous,” “silly,” “way too emotional,” or that “you should only be happy!”  Consider kindly informing any well-meaning “helpers” that you are practicing accepting your emotions without judgment. Perhaps they will take up this practice as well.

Let the judgements – and the judgers – float on by.


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About Marybeth Bock

Marybeth Bock, MPH, is Mom to two young adults and one delightful hound dog. She has logged time as a military spouse, childbirth educator, college instructor and freelance writer. She lives in Arizona and thoroughly enjoys research and writing - as long as iced coffee is involved. You can find her work on numerous websites and in two books. Find her on Facebook and Instagram

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