How NOT to Worry About Your College Student

I wrote a very popular meme a few years ago that simply said,

I thought I used to ‘worry’ a lot when my kids were little. Then I had teenagers. You know what I would give right now to worry about nap times and sippy cups? Everything.

It was right at the time my firstborn went away to college. Aside from the fact my maternal emotions were predictably all over the “freak out” spectrum,  frequently screaming things in my head like,  “MY BABY IS LEAVING ME!” was the fact I now found myself on a very frenetic and anxious journey I like to call the “The Rabbit Hole of Worry.”

If you’re unfamiliar with the “Rabbit Hole of Worry,” let me explain briefly. It’s similar to the panicked midnight mania you experienced as a first-time mother. You remember that, don’t you?

It was that alarming form of heart-racing hysteria where you leaped out of bed and raced into the nursery at 3 a.m. to reach over the crib and gently put your hand on your baby’s back to see if they were still breathing. Yes, it’s like that, ONLY A THOUSAND TIMES WORSE.

Parents worry about their college kids.
Why we worry about our teens and college students. (Christopher Willans/Shutterstock)


“Beginner worry” vs. the “Rabbit Hole of Worry”

You see, there is “beginner worry” that first manifests itself during the early teen years, right when your kids (unbeknownst to you) are slowly beginning the separation process. You suddenly find yourself alone in a movie theatre parking lot at 11 p.m., waiting to pick up a pack of teens and wondering, “What if they didn’t go see the movie, and instead they’re all in the bathroom smoking pot and taking selfies of their bras?”

And that beginner worry? During adolescence, it snowballs faster than an 8-year-old sledding downhill after a mid-winter blizzard. And. It. Just. Doesn’t. Stop. EVER.

One teen worry compounds onto the next, then the next, and then the next, and suddenly the woes of potty training seem ludicrous, and the fact you ever wasted one minute fretting over a failed middle school spelling test seems completely nonsensical now.

You no longer shake your head in disbelief when you hear older parents say, “Little kids, little problems, big kids, big problems.” Now you stand up and cheer and find the need to preach the same to your younger peers, who are currently (and regrettably) fretting over failed 3rd-grade spelling tests.

And just when you *think* you have the worrying somewhat under control because your kid survived high school (and a large chunk of the unstable and traumatic teen years are seemingly over), they go away to college. Or they join the service. Or they move across the country to find a job and “themselves.” Or they take a gap year and fly solo to the other side of the planet.

And thus begins a new set of irrational worries that you cannot even imagine your brain ever being able to manufacture, yet it does. At 2 a.m. Especially at 2 a.m.

What happens inside a mother’s brain in the middle of the night when their children are no longer small and asleep down the hall is a well-choreographed (and strikingly visual) cacophony of catastrophic events that no sane person should ever entertain. And although scientifically based social and psychological research studies tell us that today’s young people are safer, smarter, and are engaging in less risky behavior than all generations prior, none of that matters to mothers.

Because all we see when we spiral down the Rabbit Hole of Worry are absurd (yet horrific) situations that are truly statistical anomalies and that which will never, if ever, come to pass. And yet we still worry. Down the Rabbit Hole we go…

I’ve wasted many a night lying awake, eyes closed with fright as images of my young adults somewhere in a fatal kind of trouble flash underneath them, and I’m here to tell you that it’s one colossal and monumental waste of time.

Worrying — whether about the small stuff like spelling tests or the big stuff like, “Is my college kid making smart and safe choices?”—is the least productive type of thought our minds can knit together. But escaping from the Rabbit Hole of worry is no easy task. I know because I’m currently still trying to claw my way out.

Does the hole get easier to manage the longer they are at college? Somewhat. The type of worries change, but they’re still there, rearing their ugly heads in the silence of the night. Unfortunately, I have no magic pill to prescribe, mantra to tell you to repeat, or faith or science-based therapy that can fully remove or alleviate your Rabbit Hole because it’s simply something that comes with being a parent. 

But whether you let it consume you (or just allow it to float somewhere in the background of your psyche) is a mental choice you’ll find yourself forced to make every single day of your life.

The good news is, there is company in the Rabbit Hole, and it comes in the form of friends that are in the same stage of mothering as you, so seek them out and lean on each other during these unpredictable days and nights. Together, maybe you all can find a way out of the hole and begin to enjoy watching your young adults become independent grown people because happiness does exist in parenting college-aged kids and adults, it just takes a little longer to embrace it and learn how to feel it.

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About Melissa Fenton

Melissa Fenton is a freelance writer and adjunct librarian at Pasco-Hernando State College. Find her writing all over the internet, but her work mostly on the dinner table. Find her on Facebook 
and on twitter at @melissarunsaway

Read more posts by Melissa

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