Parent Depression When Child Goes to College

Depression When Child Goes to College: What to Do

Published On: March 4, 2024

Many parents experience sadness when their child goes to college. This is a big transition for the entire family, and everyone’s daily living is impacted. Parents sometimes struggle with experiencing incongruent emotions (such as feeling proud and also sad), creating a new normal for themselves, and worrying about maintaining their healthy relationship with their child after they go to college. 

Why Do Parents Feel Depressed When Their Child Goes to College?

When your kid heads off to college, it often feels like an ending as much as a beginning. Many parents notice a heavy heart and longing for their child. Some parents even experience symptoms of depression. This isn’t uncommon; it’s a big life transition for everyone in the family.

You’ve been their cheerleader, their cook, their chauffeur. Now, there’s quiet. The silence may result in feelings of sadness or a sense of loss. This significant change hits hard for some parents. For some parents, it’s more than a passing gloom. Some parents experience an overall persistent lack of energy and loss of interest in things once enjoyed. This may transpire into more than simply missing your child, such as challenges in your relationship, difficulty maintaining your work efforts, and lack of interest in pursuing activities that you previously found enjoyable. Some parents notice that little annoyances set them off, whereas before they were able to tolerate them. This change in temperament often strains relationships and may make you feel isolated, ramping up those depressive feelings.

I have found that some parents really struggle with guilt or shame whenever they recognize they’re feeling down after their child leaves for college. They often tell themselves, “Hey! This is what we wanted. We wanted them to be successful, independent adults,” and rather than feeling excitement, they feel depressed. This incongruence in expected emotions versus reality sometimes creates significant distress. 

The Joy and Sorrow of Letting Go

As a parent, you’ve probably looked forward to this milestone with a lot of pride. Yet, as the high school years wind down, you might not have expected the intense sadness. It’s tough when what you’re most proud of also means facing a quieter, emptier home.

Transition to Independence

Watching your child transition to independence can stir up a lot of emotions. While you’re proud they’re stepping into young adulthood, the shift in your daily structure can leave you with a sense of loss. Some parents struggle with feeling as though they are no longer needed by their child. Parents may also be experiencing a lighter schedule than usual, as they are no longer driving their child places, helping with homework every night, cleaning up messes, or cooking meals. 

Adapting to New Family Dynamics

When your child leaves for college, your family’s daily rhythms shift, which is not always easy. You might find yourself struggling with how to fill the spaces your child used to occupy. It can be a challenge to redefine what your family’s schedule looks like on a day-to-day basis.

Recognizing Depression Symptoms

For most parents, these feelings of sadness ease as they find their new routines and schedules; However, for some parents, these feelings of sadness do not go away as easily. It is important to allow yourself time to adjust, and seek out additional support if you feel as though your sadness has lingered for longer than expected. Parents should look out for symptoms of more significant concerns, such as persistent sadness, frequent tearfulness, or feelings of hopelessness, as they may indicate a need for additional support. Many parents find working through their emotions with a licensed mental health therapist to be useful as they adapt to this big change.

How to Adjust to Life After Your Child Leaves For College

Child Leaving for College

When your child heads off to college, it’s common to experience a mix of emotions, from sadness to relief. Here are 7 ways you can navigate this new chapter of life:

1. Recognizing and Addressing the Feelings

You might feel a profound sense of loss or a sudden increase in anxiety after your child leaves for college. Allow yourself to recognize these emotions as a natural reaction to this significant transition. I encourage parents to meet their emotions with acceptance rather than shame or guilt. Acknowledging that these emotions are common and expected helps parents to not feel as bad about them.

2. Creating a New Purpose and Routine

With the house quieter and your schedule a bit lighter, you have an opportunity to create a new routine. I encourage parents to fill in their schedule with activities that are meaningful to them and help them to cope during this transition. Some ideas that parents may incorporate into their new routine includes picking up a new hobby, volunteering in their community, following up with old connections, and engaging in previously enjoyable activities.

3. Maintaining Connections with Your Child

Although your child is no longer at home, it is still possible to maintain a healthy connection with them. I encourage parents to find a balance between being supportive and allowing their child space to grow into their own routines as well. Some parents find it useful to call to check-in once a week, and others prefer to send a couple text messages throughout the week. It is important to find what works well for you and your family, as there is no singular “right” way to stay connected during this time. 

4. Exploring Personal Growth and Development

You have spent a significant amount of time supporting your child as they grow and develop into a young adult. Now that they are leaving for college, you may use this time to now refocus on your personal development. Some ideas include learning new material, pursuing further education, taking on new projects, or simply exploring ways to grow in your day to day life.

5. Managing Loneliness and Social Isolation

Some parents report feeling lonely now that their child is away at college. It is important to continue to engage socially with your friends, family, and social networks. If you are looking to create new connections, you may consider attending community events or joining clubs to meet new people.

6. Engaging in Regular Self-Care

When our regular routines change, we sometimes cease taking good care of ourselves. I encourage parents to start with the basics, such as ensuring they’re getting enough sleep, exercising regularly, and eating healthy meals. Ensuring that you are getting enough rest and moving your body make a big difference in adjusting to this big change. 

7. Seeking Professional Help

If you are unable to cope with this transition independently, it can be useful to bring in  professionals for additional support. Meeting with a licensed mental health therapist can be useful, as the therapist can give you strategies to cope and help you navigate your feelings. Many parents find it helpful to work through their thoughts and emotions with a supportive, neutral party. Depression therapists are also able to help you maintain a healthy connection with your child by providing psychoeducation and guidance around the best ways to communicate and support them.

How to Maintain a Healthy Relationship with Your Child in College

College Parents

Sending your child off to college is a major transition for both of you. Many parents struggle to find a balance between giving their child space to grow and providing a supportive home base they can count on. Here’s 5 tips to maintain a healthy relationship with your child in college:

1. Balancing Support with Independence

As I mentioned before, parents want to aim for balancing the amount of support they provide to their child with creating enough space for them to foster their independence. In my experience, parents successfully do this by setting expectations for check-ins that work for both of you. Although you may want to talk on the phone with your child everyday, that amount of contact may feel overwhelming for them. You may avoid future conflicts by having an open, honest conversation about check-ins to create expectations that work for everyone.

2. Effective Communication and Expectations

When having a conversation with your child about check-ins, I encourage families to discuss how often and through what means you’ll stay in touch, whether it’s text, phone calls, or video calls. It is important that everyone is open minded and flexible for these discussions to be effective.

3. Navigating Academic and Social Pressures

As your child adjusts to college, they may feel overwhelmed with academic pressure and social expectations. If you notice that your child seems to be more stressed, irritable, or frustrated, you might encourage them to find a balance that works for them, and suggest utilizing campus resources like tutoring and counseling if needed. Parents should aim to encourage their child to problem-solve, rather than step in and attempt to solve the problem for them. 

4. Addressing Financial Concerns

It is important for families to have an open conversation about budgeting, expenses, and who will be paying for what expenses. Having clear expectations about finances can prevent future problems down the line. Parents may help their child understand financial planning, but also allow them to make some (small!) mistakes for learning opportunities. 

5. Providing Emotional Support and Guidance (Hold the Solutions!)

Trust that you have raised a smart, independent young adult. What adults need is for their emotions to be validated, and know that people have their backs no matter what. Rather than immediately providing your child with solutions to problems or concerns, simply validate their experiences and feelings, while allowing them to find their own solutions. This reinforces the child’s belief that they are a capable young adult.

Final Thoughts

Most parents experience mixed emotions when their child goes off to college. Understanding that this is a normal experience allows for parents to release shame and guilt about their feelings. When feelings of sadness or anxiety pop-up, you may consider managing them through creating new routines, maintaining your connection with your child, and engaging in regular self-care. Parents may maintain a healthy relationship with their child going away to college by communicating effectively, allowing their child to make mistakes, and validating their experiences and emotions. 

If you are finding this transition really difficult, I highly encourage you to seek professional support. A licensed mental health therapist will help you explore your emotional responses to this transition, assist you in developing a new normal, and act as a resource guide when it comes to communicating with your child who has left for college. Although this is a challenging time, you will persevere with the right support in place.