How do parents, siblings, and families fare after a child leaves for college?
Ushering a child off to college is a landmark event, but most people tend to focus on the new college undergrad and not the family they left behind. How do they redefine their new household now that one member has left the nest? In order to navigate this special time in your family’s life, here are some common myths and the real science to dispel them.
Lets look at mom and dad first:
Myth: Women fall apart when the children leave
Are you picturing a woman sitting forlornly at the kitchen table drinking her third glass of wine before noon? Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, most women reach new heights once they are released from the daily grind of taking care of children. Leading researchers say that most women already have a defined role separate from the family – perhaps a career, in the community, at church, or even in a PTA or a neighborhood association. They often come into their own as leaders and decision makers once the kids go off to college.
Myth: Men are always strong and sturdy once the kids depart
The days of distant dads are gone! According to research, fathers struggle more than mothers when the kids leave home. In contrast to their wives, men don’t prepare for or process the changes to the household until it’s too late. With that “stiff upper lip” mentality, they remain stoic and strong until the reality hits them all at once. Their precious son or darling daughter is now an adult and won’t be home for dinner. If it really hits them hard, they can even withdraw into a significant sadness or even depression about what could have been or how they should have handled things differently.
Myth: Marriages suffer once the kids are grown
Marriages “after children” tend to reset. Understand that child rearing has dominated the marriage for decades, and now they can revert back to focusing on their relationship and dating! In fact, these marriages are often closer since they have achieved an important landmark in life and withstood the test of time. Now they have time to engage in all those activities and hobbies that have been on the back burner. Marriages often become more romantic and may return to the earlier patterns of adventure seeking and carefree fun that was more typical of early courtship and dating.
How do siblings fare when big brother or sister hits the door?
Myth: Without their older siblings, most kids are lost
Most of the time, the younger siblings fare pretty well. In fact, they often come into their own and develop a new role within the family. Now that their older sibling no longer overshadows them, they can fully define their new identity, interests, and life direction. Naturally, they often receive much more time and attention from mom and dad than before. However, this can sometimes backfire. Greater scrutiny can cause more tension and conflict to come to the surface, especially if there were already underlying problems that have never been addressed.
Myth: Undergrads often return to find the family exactly the same
The family may seem very different to a returning student. When any family member leaves, the family must renegotiate the household roles. We revisit who the mediator will be, how decisions are now being made, and even the division of household chores. Left behind family members do tend to either become closer or more distant depending on how each family member behaves. Either way, “home” will be very different.
Myth: Younger siblings always have their own independent path
Watching your older sibling rocket into a new phase of life makes most of us consider our own next steps. Younger siblings who are close with their departing brother or sister embrace them even more. They are much more likely to emulate their older sibling’s fashion sense, political views, and career choices. They may even choose the same college. In fact, a study from Harvard University and the College Board found that 69% of younger siblings enrolled in the same type of college as their older siblings while 31% of younger siblings actually applied to the exact same institution. Surprisingly, about 20% of younger siblings went to the exact same college when it was time for their decision.
So, what can parents do for younger siblings left at home?
A Teachable Moment
Use this change in your family as a teachable moment. We always want to show our children that change is not necessarily a bad thing. More importantly, the changes that come in the life of a family are inevitable and can lead to wonderful new opportunities. Children need to see their parents approaching difficult or sad situations as something that is temporary and focus on the next exciting step for the future.
New Rituals of Connection
When a sibling leaves for college, the entire family is in state of redefinition. Using the new freedom of parents and the remaining siblings, the family can now embark on new family adventures, explore different hobbies together, and bond around a new family identity. Discover new restaurants, explore new travel destinations, try paintball, check out a new museum, or even have a “stay-cation” to finally enjoy a family night of baseball out at the ballpark. Families now have an opportunity to bond in an unprecedented way and try out new methods of connection. Maybe the departing older sibling wasn’t a baseball fan!
A Growing Circle
When the children begin to leave the nest, parents and kids have an opportunity to expand their social circle. Research shows that mom and dad often reconnect with their own siblings, extended family, and long lost friends at this important time. Younger siblings also have an opportunity to create a closer bond to their parents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and community at large. Again, the family relationships realign and reset to encompass a community that may have been overlooked during the busy years of child rearing.
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