College Bound: How To Cope When A Child Leaves Home

by Parenting, Wisdom, Wisdom Podcasts2 comments

Editor’s note: this blog post was inspired by a question submitted via our Ask Karen page. Karen M. wrote to ask Karen Mulder’s advice on how to cope with the departure of a college-aged child.

Dear Karen:
Right now so many of my friends’ kids are going back to college or away for the first time.  Some of these parents are really hurting, despite wanting their kids to go to college.  It’s an adjustment.  One of my friends said she cried all the way back from dropping her son off at Wayne State University.  I have sent several kids to college and it seems the loss in everyday life is painful with each child.  This year my Kate left to attend college, and having my only daughter away is a real adjustment. You have dealt with this in your life and thought you might have some wisdom to share on the subject. -Karen M.

Karen M.’s letter mentioned the word, “adjustment” two times, and I think that is the key idea when a parent is saying good-bye (for a while) to a child. When a child leaves the home— there is an adjustment. No matter the reason, whether it’s for college, or military service, or to start a new career or to get married, we feel a loss.  One may go through a grieving period as they mourn for “what was” and find a new way “to be.”

One of the reasons I love writing this blog is because I learn so much from other individuals.  For example, Natalie Caine of the Empty Nest Support website advises that when saying good-bye for a while:

  • Accept that your parenting role shifts. One mom shared and others chimed in, “I no longer have the control or imaginary control I use to have.”
  • Be with people who understand your journey of change.  This is an ending to the role you had as parent and a beginning of a new parenting role.  It is more about re-connecting with yourself and moving into adult to adult relationship with your kids.
  • Journal or share with another person: what you will miss and what you look forward to. Natalie suggests that you remember too that tears are a great thing!  Tears heal.  It is okay to cry.  Speaking of crying, it is ok for your child to see you cry.  Just let them know beforehand that you might cry and that it is normal.  They don’t have to do anything.  Just let you be.  You will be fine.  LOVE BRINGS TEARS!

So Moms and Dads, remember that transition times are difficult.  You may go through a grieving period as you mourn for “what was” and search to find a new way “to be.”

So be sweet to yourself during this time.  Treat yourself as you would treat your best friend who misses someone they love.

It is helpful if the parent has already established a new project or goal which he or she will begin when their daughter or son leaves for college, marriage, or military.  When my oldest son, Jeff, left for college and my younger son, Michael, was a junior in high school, I enrolled as a student at a local seminary.  As an adult, this graduate program was new, exciting and very challenging.  I had a new focus, and as a mom, I could gradually let go of being “child-centered.”  This was very helpful and healthy for my sons and for me.

Consider:  What activities did you use to do after school?  Music, bike ride, sports, sew, art, etc.  What might be fun, from those days, to do today?

Or a parent might ask himself, “What have I always wanted to do, but never had the time. (Learn to knit, play golf, learn a new computer program, scrapbook, take up jogging, walking or any physical fitness goal is a great way to relieve stress, feel good about oneself and, at the same time, become physically fit.)

Margaret Metzgar, author of the book, A Time to Mourn, A Time to Dance, suggests:  “To help you with the empty nest syndrome, you might consider becoming a student of your children’s career interests, opportunities and challenges.  It’s a way to continue meaningful communication.”

And my last suggestion (for Karen M. and all parents who find themselves in this situation), consider: What one thing could you put on your calendar this week that would be fun?

Transitions are invitations to make time for yourself.  Time to focus on you now.  Time to ask for help.  Time to rest.  Time to make wish lists.  Time for compassion and time to weep.

May the Lord bless you and guide you as you venture through this time of transition.


Karen Mulder

Karen Mulder

Karen Mulder is the founder of the Wisdom of the Wounded ministry. She lives in Holland, Michigan with her husband Larry.


  1. Michelle Charameda

    Thanks, Karen. Just what I needed to hear.

  2. Marilyn

    I have 4 children and 3 of them left the house within 13 months. My daughter married in 2015…that wasn’t so bad, just an adjustment b/c I had my 3 boys at home yet. 13 months later 2 of my sons left for basic training for the Navy. THAT was an adjustment. It was as if the “life” left my house. My last remaining son was just as lost as he has a mental disability. Both my husband and I grieved for about 2-3 weeks. We would be fine and then we’d be sobbing. It took me days to go into their bedroom. It was too hard. But we moved on and “changed” our roles as parents. It took some time but we got there. Just let yourself grieve and go with it. It’s a new season in life and a transition. We never want our “babies” to grow up and leave, but that is our job…to raise them so they will leave and move on with their lives. We also started to get into hobbies again – things we couldn’t do raising a family. 10 years later we have new roles of caring for elderly parents. So the hobbies are on the back burner again. Enjoy each season in life. This too shall pass.

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