Out of the nest
Families feel equal parts excitement and apprehension as they adjust to the experience of a son or daughter heading off to college for the first time.
Jessica Phillips-Patrick's days at home are numbered. An only child, she will soon leave the comfort of her family's house in Maryland for Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif.Skip to next paragraph
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She and her parents are savoring their time together in ways she hadn't expected.
"Mom and I argue less. She packs my lunch for work, and Dad brings me breakfast in bed," she says. "We're enjoying being a family more than ever."
Single mom Kate Berenson is also making family time a priority before her son Nick heads from Albany, Calif., to Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Ore. This has been a bit challenging, she says, since Nick has been acting slightly moody lately.
When she proposed that she, Nick, and his younger sister spend a week at a dude ranch in Montana, he initially resisted but then agreed to go. "He didn't want to miss the time with his girlfriend, but the lure to ride horses eventually won him over," she says.
In the back of these parents' minds is the realization that launching their children into college is the beginning of their leaving home for good. Spending a week together as a family or honoring each other with simple rituals is a way of creating memories that will stay with them.
This transition is often just as challenging for parents as their teens, and a little last-minute bonding can go a long way toward helping both parties feel better about the impending change.
The summer before that first college year is a critical time in many respects. It's during these months when kids begin to straddle both childhood and adulthood, with one foot in each phase, says Michael Silverstein, who hosts weekly orientation seminars for parents and incoming freshmen at Temple University in Philadelphia.
Like Nick Berenson, college-bound kids may buck last-minute togetherness as a family, but they also need these reminders of their parents' love. "They swing between wanting to be independent and feeling clingy," Mr. Silverstein explains, likening them to toddlers in the park who run off to play and then return to check in.
Parents often experience similar emotions, he says, explaining that they may feel pangs of sadness and concern, but also - especially in the case of new empty-nesters - eagerness to travel more, spill into the spare room, or pursue a new hobby.
It's a crazy time, says Patricia Pasick, family therapist and mother of two boys, ages 20 and 25. Speaking as one who's been there, she says, "On one hand, we yearn to stretch the minutes with our almost-grown children into hours ... on the other hand, we can't wait for this transition to be over."
In her book, "Almost Grown: Launching Your Child From High School to College," Dr. Pasick offers advice for making this time less of a roller-coaster ride. "Acknowledge your adolescent's concerns, and also remind them about other times when he or she has successfully coped with new places and new friends," she suggests.
It's also crucial in the final weeks before departure days to put aside major projects to just be there. "As your child dashes between home and work and friends," she explains, "an available parent is an important anchor."
Before departure day, parents also need to initiate a frank discussion about some of the thorniest topics of all - sexuality, peer pressure, and money management. "They should ask the hard questions without acting confrontational," says Pasick. For example, gently ask them, "What will you do if x, y, or z happens?"
Voncile White, dean of first-year students at Wellesley College in Wellesley, Mass., agrees that talking about finances is vital. "Some students build up credit-card debt from buying things like CDs or new skis, and then they cut classes to work so they can pay it off. They are not only missing valuable classroom time, but they could also ruin their credit for the future."
As for talks about drugs, sex, and alcohol, Ms. White feels it's better that student advisers broach these topics. "Kids have heard about these issues from adults so many times that they don't listen anymore," she explains. "They may be just as concerned about frat parties as their parents, but it's better that they talk with their peers, who often have a stronger voice."
Jessica Phillips-Patrick has had many years' experience handling her own finances. "My mom, a skilled bargain hunter, has wanted me to earn my own money and deal with finances on my own since I started middle school," she wrote in an e-mail message - her preferred means of communication. "This summer, I set up my own bank account and got an internship that paid well. My parents have agreed to pay for my education, but I have to pay for most other things."