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.

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."

Philosophical discussion

The most meaningful discussion she's had with a parent in recent weeks was more of a philosophical one. "My dad told me that going to Stanford will be an amazing opportunity," she recalls. "He believes the world is at my fingertips, and that I can do anything I set my mind to. His belief in me got me really excited about the future."

Keeping in touch

Such words of encouragement are key not only before college starts, but especially while it's in session, says Pasick. With e-mail, parents can easily fire off a quick note of love and support. She has witnessed how the quickness and informality of e-mail can even improve relationships between college students and their parents. But cybernotes shouldn't replace regular phone calls and an occasional handwritten letter. "As long as there are mailboxes, they need letters," she says.

Don't fret if you don't hear back right away. And even if the response is a distress call, there may still be no need to fret.

"My daughter sometimes calls and sobs horrendously, complaining that life is miserable and nobody likes her," says Susan Mills, whose eldest daughter, Rachel, will be a junior at Oberlin College in Ohio this year. "I used to stay up all night worrying about her. When I'd call the next day, she'd say 'What do you mean? Everything's fine.' " After this happened a few times, Ms. Mills realized that Rachel simply needed to vent, and that she, as her mother, just needed to listen and offer words of encouragement, but not lose sleep over her daughter's distress.

College counselors agree that staying in touch is vital. Each family must work out frequency of contact. "It's a bit of a dance at first," says Pasick. "The students are trying to show how capable, ready, and independent they are, so they wait for parents to make the first move. At the same time, parents are trying to pull back and let go, so they may not call for a couple weeks." It's key to strike a balance, she adds, between respecting the student's new independence, but also letting them know you care. "Sometimes parents stand back too far, and it hurts. But they also shouldn't call every day. They can't be either too standoffish or too clingy."

Parents may want to tread gently when inquiring about academics, suggests Wellesley College's Voncile White. "Ask about content rather than grades," she explains. "Then students will talk more freely and won't worry about measuring up or disappointing you."

Growing up

The process of leaving home does get easier, but for some college students, especially those who live at home during the summer, some of the same anxieties resurface. Lesley Thompson, who will be living by herself off-campus as a sophomore at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, Va., says she'll miss the "safety net" she's had this summer at her father's home on Capitol Hill in Washington. "It reminds me of going off for the first time," she says. "It was a smack in the face to suddenly not have all the food I wanted for free. I had to buy my own groceries and do my own laundry." But she also feels better able to take on these tasks. "I've learned that I can really make it in the real world," she says.

One of the greatest joys of parenthood during the college years, say some adults who have been there, is watching young people blossom into capable and competent adults. Jerry Derloshon and his wife, Debbie, experienced many common jitters when launching their two children into college, but quickly realized they would do just fine. "Parents are often good at imagining the worst," he says. "We don't always give our kids the credit they deserve for making good, independent judgments of their own.

"It's important to remember that they want to see you, but they also want to be with their friends, and that's OK," he says. The best advice he'd give to parents sending off a child to college can be summed up in a word: trust. "The most challenging aspect is having to let go, but eventually, of course, you must do this," he says. "Bottom line is that you have to have faith in your kids and trust that you have imparted certain values and beliefs that will carry them through anything."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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