What to Do When Your Teen Goes to College

Our teen all dressed up for high school prom.

High school prom = dapper!

Walk with me for a moment….

You love your kid(s) your nest is full.

It’s 2:00 am, you hear the faint cry of your child, you nudge your spouse to get up and they play dead in bed. You put the fact that you are tired from a long day of endless meetings aside, and you find a way to get up and give your child what they need; a warm bottle of milk, and a few moments with you.  All they want is to be comforted in your arms and be rocked gently back to sleep.  As you baby falls asleep you start to think out-loud that you can’t remember the last time you enjoyed a glass of wine and a bath or had a shower that lasted more than seven minutes. You are “all in” on this baby can and will grow mode, you take a deep breath, put the baby back in the crib and realize your alarm to start the day will be going off in 15 minutes.

Our kid having fun at the park.

A boy that spins, is a happy boy.

A few years pass and before you know it your kid is busier than a bee:  soccer on Monday, dance class on Tuesday, volunteer activities on Wednesday, piano on Thursday and four friends are coming over on Friday for a sleep over – you can’t even think of the 27 things taking place on the weekend.  You enjoy the kids are getting older mode – you see their personalities coming out and you encourage them to reach for the stars. You just wish Uber was around when they were in this stage of life so that you didn’t have to play cab drive for two hours or more a day.

It’s now the spring semester of their senior year in high school.  Class pictures have been taken, prom happened without incident, you attended your last play, you sat in the stands for their last game, you teared up at their last recital. College applications have been sent, acceptance letters have been received and your teen has just told you that they’ve decided that they want to go to college 1,647 miles away from home.

Your heart sank, you felt your face turn flush – you love your kid(s), your nest is about to become empty, what do you do?

Every year 3 million teens graduate from High School, and 69% of them enroll immediately into either a two or four-year college*.  They leave the “comfort” of home to experience life anew.

To help parents maintain a healthy relationship with their teen and embrace new found freedoms of time and responsibility we offer the following suggestions.

What To Do When Your Teen Goes to College

Think Picnic not Panic:

You set the tone for your relationship with your teen.  If they see you panic at the thought of them being on their own, you could unintentionally erode some of their self-confidence and end up encouraging them to build and maintain a greater dependence on you.  Instead, discuss with them how you are going to experience this “life-change” the same way you would a family picnic.  You will anticipate things going well, find time for important conversations, be ready for shifts in direction, you know sometimes things will get messy and need some clean up, but in the end, your goal, and their goal is the same – to be fully present and experience something unique.

Discover, Uncover, Reveal:

Shift your mindset from they are gone, what do I do – to they are gone – what can I/will I discover about me, my spouse, or my interests?  You can still be a responsible parent and discover, uncover and reveal new things about you.  Be intentional about repurposing your purpose – you are not “on the clock” to help with an assignment, you don’t have a litany of parental to do’s, there are no permission slips to complete, school projects to fund, classrooms to volunteer in – you get to give yourself the ultimate permission slip of self-discovery. And share your points of discovery with a community of other empty nesters. Learn and experience this self-discovery moment together, it will help to reduce feelings of loneliness or isolation.

Reset Family Norms:

Take time to discuss, validate and agree upon family norms. Figure out together, with your college-bound teen, how you will now do things like: communicate (where, how, when, what do to in an emergency), how do you now define independence (financial, decision-making), family time (holidays, birthdays, family gatherings during school time)….you get the picture, the more you talk about family norms the less likely you will experience rough patches that show up when communication has been limited.

Recognize that your role has switch from “Manager to Coach”:

For many parents, getting their teen through high school often involved moments of dictating what they would do, and when they would do it.  You could manage their daily activities and give them important direction that kept them on the right path.

To own their path your teen now needs to see you embrace a new role, switching from manager to coach.  A coach never takes the place of player in a game.  Phil Jackson never took the ball out of Michael Jordan’s hands to shoot a three pointer; Bill Bellicheck never put on a helmet and took a snap from center.

Coaches belong on the sideline, not in the game:

You are not your teen’s alarm clock, or laundry service, you are not their daily career or social experience advisor.  You are, and you will always be their life coach.  Give them things to think about, give them choices to consider, and let them walk into an adulthood they can own and feel good about.  There is freedom in coaching – it’s not easy, but both you and your teen will be better at adulting (yes, it is a word and a hashtag #adulting – and it means doing adult things – who knew…).

As your teen goes throught the full college experience you will have moments of celebration and perhaps some heartache.  It’s normal, you are normal, this life change is normal. Remember to be good to your teen and be good to yourself; you are learning, and they are learning to fly on their own. Let their wings get caught up in the air, let them go and experience life anew and embrace what life is ready to bring you.


*Immediate College Enrollment Rate: Enrolling in 2 or 4 year college immediately after high school graduation.  In 2015, 3.0M high school students graduated, 2.1M enrolled immediately in college (69%). National Education Center for Education Stats