How to Say Goodbye to Your College Bound Teen

by | Jun 24, 2014 | School Success and Learning, Self-Reliance and Agency

Parenting advice for before, during, and after your teen’s move from home and off to college for a positive send-off

After all the test-taking, application filling, essay editing, campus touring, and acceptance-waiting, the big event is almost here: dropping your teen off at college. You’d think that would be the easy part, but move-in day on college campuses is actually a high anxiety, emotionally draining affair. (So says the voice of experience! Believe me, you’re never prepared enough). There are boxes to unload, roommates to meet, dorms to find. And there’s also that final moment when you know you have to say goodbye to your teen who may be leaving home for the first time. (Sigh!) So what are ways to handle this momentous event so that both parent and teen can have the best possible sendoff? I did a TODAY Show segment with Natalie Morales and the two of us ended up in tears just discussing this on air. So a word of warning…this can be a roller coaster ride of emotions. College sends off dates vary greatly per university, but regardless if whether you’ve already said goodbye or are anticipate the big event, here are a few parenting strategies–What to do before the big day, on the actual move in day, and in the days and weeks after the move-– to help both teens and parentssay those final goodbyes and have a positive send-off.


Be prepared

Letting go is going to be different than you expected and far more emotionally charged.After all, we’ve been soinvolved in our kids’ lives and have been determined to give them the best. And frankly this is a huge economic investment. So recognize your feelings and sort out your emotions before the big departure. This is the time to use restraint. It’s probably best not to say, “What am I going to do without you?”

Have those “significant talks” before the big drop off

Don’t count on having a momentous goodbye once you get to campus. The day is guaranteed to be hectic and stressful and not the best time to air your list of parental concerns. Instead have the meaningful talk or one last big lecture to discuss those things that could become areas of contention a few days before you leave home. You might want to make a list of things you want to discuss: financial matters (like spending money and that credit card); your expectations; how you’ll stay in touch; when you’ll see each other next; and those safety issues like binge drinking and date rape (most parents say safety is their biggest concern).  A prior talk (if you think it is needed) will let you and your kid focus on move-in day and have a more positive departure.

Anticipate concerns

You know your teen best, so get into his shoes. What might cause him a few worries that he may not verbalize but deep down are causing more than a few anxious nights. What if I have an asthma attack? What if I don’t get my classes? What if I don’t get along with my roommate? Think through those “what ifs…” and drop a few casual solutions. “I noticed there’s an infirmary right on campus.” “Here’s the website for changing classes…” The secret is to empower your teen with solutions to reduce those predictable worries and concerns.

Simplify the move

Most kids are embarrassed pulling up in a big moving van. So think of boxes that are easy to pack (and throw away). Or a wardrobe already on hangers that can quickly be put into the closet. Bring a few things in one box you know your kid will not have packed: a First-aid Care Package (plastic container with bandages, gauze, adhesive tape, antibiotic ointment, an ice pack, thermometer, medicines for upset stomach, headache, cold or flu, sore throat lozenges or spray), a just-in-case phone card, a surprise batch of homemade cookies or nibbles for the dorm.


Don’t get too involved in the “roommate” scene

Introduce yourself, and then lay low. Your kid doesn’t want you explaining your family history. If you don’t like the roommate, keep a poker face. Let your kid be the one to voice his concerns – not you. This is not like a playdate where you arrange everything, but a relationship your teen needs to work through alone. Give it time.

Take your teen’s lead

Don’t come with set expectations. Your role is to support your teen and you never know how he’ll respond. The same kid who was so excited may be suddenly scared to death to move. If he appears overwhelmed give him one thing to do right at that moment to get him started (“Go find your dorm room; take that box put it at door.”) P.S.: Don’t be shocked if he wants you to leave ASAP (why it’s great you had that talk).

Help your teen locate “essential” places

If you haven’t already done so in orientation help your child find for his sanity and safety: pharmacy for prescription refills. (If your teen is on medication, drop off the first prescription); bank (there probably is an ATM machine on campus, but sometimes it may not be the same bank as your teen’s so set up a new bank account with a checkbook; the dorm RA (Resident Assistant) who is your kid’s safety net. If you have any special medical concerns about your child, that’s the person to privately discuss those needs; and the infirmary. Tell him to go there in case he’s sick.

Don’t be too quick to fix things

This is the time to start switching your role from micromanager to mentor. It’s time to gently cut that umbilical cord. Let your teen know with your actions that you won’t continue to be the fix things and intervene when a problem arises and convey the belief that you know he can do it.

Think about your parting message

When that final moment does come stay as composed as possible. (Do bring Kleenex and aspirin just in case). Your child needs to know you’ll be okay without him. The final words between you and your child are key. Say whatever wisdom you have to offer, whether it is ‘I love you,’ ‘I’m behind you,’ ‘I’m proud of you.’ Your child really will remember those words. If you can’t express yourself, write your thoughts down and mail the letter to your teen immediately after you arrive home. Just don’t drag out the goodbye. Your kid doesn’t you hugging and crying and having the long goodbye in front of their new roommate and the rest of the world.

Take a second to glance back one final time

Recognize who your child has become. he’s in a whole new world now, and you’ve helped him become the person he is today. This is what parenting is all about. Drive off. Cry a bit. But also remember to celebrate the moment. You deserve it!


Know the best time to connect and stick to it

Recognize your teen is trying to fit in and adjust. His roommate may not appreciate your 7 am wake-up calls.  Ask what are the best times and dates to connect and by what method: test, phone, email or mail. Do know that most teens say texting is their preferred form of contact.

Stay connected with school happenings

Go online to the school’s website. Print out the football schedule and find out things such as when fraternities rush or if there’s a speaker series. Check into things you know your kid would be interested in which can become great talking points and help you stay involved with your teen’s new life. It’s also a way to gauge if your child is not connecting with the school.

Step back of those roommate hassles

Listen but don’t be too judgmental. Remember a big part of college is learning life skills to get along in the world and learning to get along with a roommate is part or that parcel.

Expect a bit of homesickness

It is common for freshman to get those pangs of homesickness and usually kicks in within the first two weeks. Beware: how parents respond to their teens’ complaints can exacerbate or reduce those feelings. Don’t be so quick to go making that surprise visit and packing him up to come home. Research finds that too many phone calls actually increases homesickness. Email correspondence is a better response until your teen can get his bearings. Look for a slow ebbing of homesickness, which usually subsides once kids get involved in the school scene.

Don’t go dashing home to change your teen’s room

The student’s room is ‘home base’ so try not to change it very much during his or her first semester away. Freshmen in particular can go through some very difficult times, passing exams, establishing new friendships, surviving in a setting where they are not ‘top dog,’ and often fearing that admissions has made a mistake—fearing they do not really belong at college. Give them a ‘safe haven.’ (And do know research shows that the highest rates of drop-outs happens in that freshman college year).

Watch the cash flow

About 3 weeks is usually when there’s suddenly a cash flow problem and the request for loans kicks in. Stick to the financial agreement you set with your child and watch your credit card statements. Remember, money management is part independent living.

One of my favorite sayings is a Navaho proverb: “We raise our children to leave us.” This is one of those supreme moment of parenting. Part of good parenting is facilitating your teen’s personal development and not just accomplishments.

Do keep in mind you’re not losing a child. You’re gaining an adult!

All the best!


For more parenting advice follow me on twitter at Michele Borba or on my daily blog, Dr. Michele Borba’s Reality Check. For specific parenting advice refer to my latest book, The Big Book of Parenting Solutions: 101 Answers to Your Everyday Challenges and Wildest Worries or my other 22 publications.